FreshDirect Visits Community Board 1 – 16 Months After Announcing Intentions To Move To The Bronx

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Earlier this week, a last minute meeting (at least from the community’s perspective) was announced that FreshDirect may be attending the Community Board 1 meeting on Thursday. South Bronx Unite and concerned residents immediately sounded the klaxon call to make sure everyone was aware and to make sure they attended the public meeting. 

The original meeting had been scheduled to be held at CB1’s office in Melrose on 3rd Avenue and 155th Street, however, at the last minute it was relocated to Hostos Community College on the Grand Concourse and 149th St. The change was never mentioned publicly and if several community residents did not check in earlier, we would not have known of the changes.

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After attendees began to arrive at Hostos it immediately began to turn into a confusing situation as the location was switched yet again two blocks away at another building at Hostos. Although the start of the meeting was scheduled for 5:30PM it did not begin until much later as scores of residents had to sign in before being seated.

The meeting began with the usual approving of the agenda and the minutes of the previous meeting. Cedric Loftin, District Manager began to call those signed up to speak and the first testimony was given by Reverend Ruben Austria, a resident of Mott Haven and member of South Bronx Unite.

Rev. Austria, rather than barrage the board with facts, chose to simply implore the board to listen to the testimonies from the residents with their hearts, to think of those they are selected to represent. He went on to stress that he wants to raise his family here without the worries that come with a fleet of a thousand trucks invading our already congested streets.

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Testimonies continued for over an hour from residents of the community in opposition to the deal, providing concrete facts and highlighting the misinformation provided by FreshDirect as well as our current leaders at Borough Hall. There was even a testimony welcoming FreshDirect, just not to Mott Haven but to perhaps another, more suited area.

When Christina Giorgio, a lawyer from New York Lawyers for Public Interest who is representing South Bronx Unite, got up to speak she immediately noted that she would much rather have spoken after FreshDirect son that she could properly counter their presentation but she made do regardless. At the end of her testimony she announced that they were going to appeal a recent decision where the lawsuit against FreshDirect was dismissed to a resounding round of cheers and applause from the audience.

Ivelyse Andino, who lives just several blocks from the proposed location challenged FreshDirect’s claim that they are bringing much needed access to healthy food to the district. She did a little price comparison between FreshDirect and Western Beef, a local supermarket, and found that FreshDirect’s prices were more than DOUBLE that of local supermarkets.

How does that translate to as a benefit in the poorest congressional district in the nation?

It is important to note that not one single resident of the area came to testify in support of FreshDirect. The several  that did speak did not live anywhere near the area and in fact were from far up in the North Bronx.

Stephen Ritz a South Bronx teacher and of Green Bronx Machine came up and spoke in favor of the company’s move to the Bronx. He opened up his talk with the disclaimer that he is not a paid advocate of FreshDirect but what he FAILED to disclose was that he in fact was part of a school project which was funded and hosted by FreshDirect.

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Steve Ritz stands with school and team members holding $10,000 check from FreshDirect for a project his company was involved in. In complete contradiction to his testimony stating he has no financial ties to the company.

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A local Reverend also provided testimony in Spanish due to his lack of English and provided a powerful testimony as to why we must welcome FreshDirect with open arms and take the jobs. His translators (the first a staunch supporter of FreshDirect and head of New York State’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the second, the board’s secretary) often left out the Reverend’s comments also holding FreshDirect and the board accountable.

For instance, in his closing statement he said to the board that a study should be done (referring to the 20 year old environmental impact statement that FreshDirect and the city is relying on) to address the issues of what the current impact will be and of it’s good for the community then it’s good but if not then no. He ended it with saying toothed board that they need to cut their strings and not be manipulated like puppets.

The board secretary did not translate any of that and proceeded to say that the Reverend was done. At this point I asked for the microphone to finish the translation and was met by objections from the FreshDirect team because I am in opposition. I acknowledged that we were on different camps however, what he said needed to be heard. Although the Reverend was in favor of FreshDirect, he cautioned the need for a new study and for the board to be free from political influence.

When it came time for FreshDirect’s representatives to present, they simply reiterated their misinformation regarding their commitment to the Bronx and the environment. They failed to mention when over 100 trucks from their fleet were damaged in Superstorm Sandy, they dragged them from Queens and dumped them on the Bronx waterfront. They also mentioned how competitive their prices were yet did not respond to Ivelyse’s findings.

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After they were done, several board members had questions but were blocked by Cedric Loftin, District Manager who said that due to time constraints, they would be unable to do so. He also failed to note that this was the only time they would be able to ask questions since they had two weeks to submit comments in support or against. Once again the democratic process was derailed.

The evening became incredibly tense and after the last agenda on the item, the fate of PS 31 on the Grand Concourse which we will discuss in another post, more misinformation was presented to the board by Cedric Loftin. He began instructing the board on next steps on the PS 31 issue and ordered the board to have comments in by Tuesday but after speaking in the issue for almost 10 minutes he was asked what specifically he was talking about and then he “corrected” himself and said it was on the FreshDirect issue.

Immediately the residents, including myself created an uproar over this because Loftin had railroaded any possibility of the board to question the company’s representatives since they had already left. Then a senior member placed a motion on the floor that the executive board meet in private over the issue. That’s when Mychal Johnson and everyone erupted in shouts of “No backroom deals!” Over and over again.

George Rodriguez, chairperson of Community Board 1, along with Cedric Loftin continued to block any attempt by opposing members of the board to voice their concerns over such actions. What was worse was that they even lied and said time was up because Hostos was asking us to leave due to the time and the representative from Hostos who was in the room assisting with the AV system said he said no such thing and that it was someone on the board who signaled to begin shutting down the room.

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At this point the situation became chaotic as angry residents began shouting at the board to do the right thing and demand another public meeting with FreshDirect so that they can question them. Eventually the chants became so loud that perhaps for the first time in CB1’s history, they knew that the public meant business. At least half of the board that remained agreed with us that another meeting MUST be held before comments can be submitted. Other board members had left since the meeting was unofficially closed by George Rodriguez.

Another board member reminded him that meetings cannot be ended with motions on the floor of which there were three. Rodriguez feigned ignorance of the motions and eventually kept calling the meeting closed. Since he did not follow procedures, the meeting is still going on.

The events of the leadership of Community Board 1 and District Manager Cedric Loftin shows how true it was when Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr’s office said in a nutshell that community board members were there to serve his office when they were questioned about the removal of former board member A. Mychal Johnson, a vocal opponent to the FreshDirect move.

This meeting is testament to FreshDirect’s contempt it has for the community for it took them 16 months to come to the very community they want to heavily and dangerously impact with their over 1,000 trucks and taking away of our much needed public land. Total disregard for the community was apparent when the administration announced this as a done deal back in the beginning of February 2012 when in fact it wasn’t.

We need to continue to speak up and not let our voices be silenced. Let the record show that the meeting was packed with local residents, those opposing the backroom deal who live in the affected area, and not one individual residing in the community defended FreshDirect. If the board goes along with the sweetheart deal then it will be against the community’s wishes on record.

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