Balancing Act Between Jobs and Green Space

Bronx Recycling moves construction debris next to the Harlem River south of the 149th Street Bridge. Photo by David L. Lewis

Picture the Harlem River waterfront of the future: green grass, clean water, pedestrian walkways, bike paths.

Now picture the Harlem River waterfront of today: a storage facility, a moving truck company, a used auto dealership and a recycling center.

As the recent controversy over Fresh Direct shows, transitioning the Harlem River waterfront area from one picture to the other is a delicate balancing act for city planners and public officials caught between the need to preserve jobs and  community dreams for recreation.

The South Bronx, located at the southern tip of the only New York City borough connected to the mainland United States, is a major interstate transportation hub as well as a haven on the waterfront, and both industry and residents must be able to find the middle of the road for waterfront access to be a success.

“Public access to the waterfront is tremendously important, and this administration is making enormous strides in adding public open space, but New York City’s waterfront is far too diverse to have a one-size fits all plan,” said Rachaele Raynoff, chief spokeswoman for the City Planning Commission. “The city’s working waterfront is still a vital part of the city and regional economy.”

The frequent truck travel through the South Bronx – 11,000 diesel truck trips per day, according to the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance — brings pollution and traffic but also signifies how important this area is to business activity. From the South Bronx, businesses can connect to interstate highways, freight rails and a network of bridges that connect to the rest of the city and Long Island and provide a passageway to destinations in New England, upstate New York, the Midwest, South and West Coast.

Convenient access to Manhattan was why Oz Moving and Storage set up shop at 101 Lincoln Ave. on the Harlem River three years ago. The company, which moves and stores residential and commercial items in New York, New Jersey and California, finds the address a cost-effective location for accessing the rest of New York.

“We do not utilize the waterfront per se – it is all about distance to midtown,” said Nimrod Sheinberg, vice president of sales at Oz. “For a business, time is money, so as it saves us time to get to Manhattan, it has a financial benefit for us to be on the waterfront.”

“The use of the land doesn’t have to be water-dependent, it just doesn’t need to exclude people from the water.” — Harry Bubbins

Few businesses directly on the waterfront expressed opposition to residents accessing the waterfront near their property. But community advocates have charged the city with favoring businesses without asking residents what they would like to see along the waterfront. In the controversial Fresh Direct deal this Februrary, the city announced Fresh Direct’s move to the Harlem River Yards before even conducting a public hearing.

“I don’t know what the residents wanted because they never asked the residents,” said Bettina Daimiani of Good Jobs New York, a labor group that has criticized the deal. “City and state officials did not ask the residents what they wanted at all.”

FreshDirect, the online grocer set to receive $127.9 million in city subsidies to relocate to the South Bronx, is the most recent poster child of big business whose presence will create a barrier to waterfront access.

The 500,000-square-foot warehouse, projected to open in 2017, will sit on a swath of undeveloped urban landfill on a narrow waterway known as the Bronx Kill, which connects the Harlem River to the upper East River. The location also provides easy access for the company’s fleet of 200 trucks to its service areas in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island.

Fresh Direct emphasized its move would create nearly new 1,000 jobs in the next six years and promised to try fill 30 percent of them with Bronx residents.

But community members argue the city once again promoted business interests over the desire to use the land for a bicycle and pedestrian greenway and a connector to Randall’s Island.

“The use of the land doesn’t have to be water-dependent, it just doesn’t need to exclude people from the water,” said Harry Bubbins, environmental activist and director of Friends of Brook Park.

Business and residents may diverge in uses for the waterfront, but in a neighborhood where unemployment runs to 14.1 percent, jobs are one area where they may be able to find common ground.

Majora Carter, a pioneer in the urban environmental justice movement, said the business community was instrumental in her success developing open space in the long-neglected Hunts Point neighborhood nearby.

Carter said a similar partnership with companies such as Fresh Direct could be positive for both jobs and waterfront access further south in Mott Haven.

“This is a good example of an opportunity to start working with an incoming corporate neighbor ASAP to build a partnership that can prepare local people to compete for jobs related to that infusion of economic activity and grow the riverfront in a responsible way,” Carter said in an email.

Calls to Fresh Direct for comment were not returned.

Even if the company does fulfill its promise to create jobs, the community is concerned about the quality of the jobs brought to the neighborhood.

The Bronx has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the city, defined as workers who earn $11 per hour or less, and community residents were trying to avoid the proliferation of more low- wage work.

That’s about the same pay as the service jobs – restaurant workers, retail salespersons, park maintenance – that would follow development of residential and recreational waterfront, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fresh Direct starts its drivers at $11 an hour and provides no benefits or union representation. Picker-packers, truck drivers, forklift operators – jobs prevalent at warehouses and storage facilities like the ones along the Harlem River – earn $18 per hour on average, the bureau said in its 2012 survey of wages.

“Its not just about giving jobs but also about understanding what the impact is,” said Ashwin Balakrishnan, coordinator of the Watershed Alliance. “In order for the partnership to work, they have to be on the same page about the details. Businesses need to meet their bottom line, and communities need to make sure there is development in their area.”