FreshDirect court battle rages on

Days before the Appellate Court tossed out their lawsuit, protesters from South Bronx Unite gathered outside the only entrance point to the Harlem River Yards, where FreshDirect has plans to relocate.
Photo courtesy South Bronx Unite

They’re down, but not out.

Days after a state appeals court gave FreshDirect a fresh stamp of approval, lawyers for locals fighting the internet grocer’s move to the South Bronx waterfront are pressing the court to reexamine its case on a technicality.

The Appellate Division in Manhattan, in a decision announced Thursday, Mar. 27, rejected charges that the city relied on an outdated environmental study at the proposed new company site when it awarded the internet grocer around $84 million in subsidies last July.

‘War rages on’

It was yet another court victory for the company aiming to build a 500,000-square-foot warehouse at the Harlem River Yards at the tip of the South Bronx in Port Morris. A Bronx state Supreme Court judge tossed out the original lawsuit, filed by neighborhood coalition South Bronx Unite, in June 2013.

But New York Lawyers for the Public Interest will head back to Bronx Supreme Court Apr. 7 to argue that the court should reconsider the case, now that the state Department of Transportation has signed off on FreshDirect’s sublease of the 28-acre parcel.

The land there is designated for public use and was meant to be a rail facility when private developer Harlem River Ventures leased it from the state in 1991. DOT had not yet signed off on the land-use changes when NYLPL filed its original complaint, said Gavin Kearney, an attorney with the organization.

“You could say that we’ve lost the battle,” said Kearney. “But the war rages on.”

Boro officials rejoice

The lawsuit alleges that the FreshDirect’s use of public land for private gain violates the state constitution, but Bronx borough officials have long said that FreshDirect is serving a huge public good by staying in the city —namely, hiring locals in the state’s poorest county. The company, now based in Queens, has promised that the move will bring 1,000 full-time jobs and 644 construction jobs to the borough.

“The court’s decision is a victory not only for FreshDirect, but for The Bronx as a whole,” Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a statement after the Appellate Division’s judgment was handed down. “ My office has, since day one, understood that this project is crucial to the future economic health and vitality of the Bronx, and I am glad to see that the continued legal efforts to stop this critical project have been thoroughly dismissed.”

OK on enviro worries

The Appellate court ruled decisively that the city did its due diligence looking into the environmental effects of FreshDirect’s move. The judges wrote in its decision that the city’s Industrial Development Agency, which doled out the subsidies, “took the requisite ‘hard look’” at locals’ concerns about pollution and truck traffic.

South Bronx Unite had charged that the company unlawfully relied on a 1993 environmental report. Since then, much of the area around the Harlem River Yards has been rezoned, with families moving in.

“We’re disappointed that the court has decided that the South Bronx is only good enough for a 21-year-old environmental study,” said Mychal Johnson, one of the group’s leaders.

The group can still carry their appeal to the state Court of Appeals, but that court is not compelled to take the case.

Local activists are now calling on new Mayor Bill de Blasio to find a way to halt the move.

FreshDirect brass, meanwhile, are pumped to be hopefully done with the legal fight and begin construction.

“Today’s decision is a huge victory for those who care about creating good jobs in the nation’s poorest Congressional District,” said company co-founder Jason Ackerman in a statement. “Our focus now turns to building our facility and making good on the promise of creating jobs and economic activity in the Bronx.”

Reach Reporter Ben Kochman at (718) 742–3394. E-mail him at bkochman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @benkochman.

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