Yard Boss Speaks Out

Anthony Riccio walked out of his trailer, crossed three sets of railroad tracks and pointed toward a narrow strip of water flanked by riverbanks lined with tall reeds.

“This is it,” he said, his outstretched arm waving to where the Bronx Kill flows from the Harlem River. “This is the waterfront.”

As senior vice president of Harlem River Yard Ventures, Riccio runs a 104-acre property that is the beating heart of  the working waterfront on the Harlem River.

The yard and its parent company, the Galesi Group, are also frequent targets for critics who say the city, the state and the company operate the yard with little concern for – or accountability to – the surrounding community.

On May 3, two City Council members challenged the company’s stewardship of the property and its compliance with its 99-year lease. The council members, Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Melissa Mark-Viverito, who both represent Mott Haven, said the lease requires the Yard to operate an intermodal train facility, which would allow large shipping containers to be brought in by rail to reduce truck traffic.

Two out of three companies use some rail service, Riccio said; all three cater to truck fleets. So will the fourth.

Riccio hopped in his car and drove a visitor through the yard, passing the FedEx World Service Center, one of three companies he helped bring to the site. The others are the New York Post printing plant and a huge waste management garbage transfer station. Two of the three use some rail service, Riccio said; all three cater to fleets of trucks.

FreshDirect will be the fourth – and, he said, the last for the Yard. The on-line food company is set to receive $127.9 million in public subsidies to build a 15-acre distribution center and parking facility for its fleet of delivery trucks.

Riccio began working in the yard soon after it was privatized by the state in 1988. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he went to Manhattan College in the Bronx and then signed on to do economic development for the city. He’s worked with half a dozen mayors and has been the chairman of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO) for the past 10 years.

He took a visitor on tour of the site on May 15 and fielded questions about some of the hot-button issues of the day. Here are his answers:

On the future of freight rail in the region:

This is the intermodal yard, which has been partially used because of the replacing of the Willis Avenue Bridge. Traffic has not been high. This is the spine of the yard – 29 acres that is inalienable. The gut of our lease is, we have to preserve the rail. That’s why this was developed.

You ever see a trailer on a flat car? The Hunts Point market was a partner of ours — they bring in produce mostly by truck. The idea is to get more of it on rail, so from California, you put this trailer on in California, it comes here. It should be cheaper. It is as quick – it should be as quick – and it brings the product right to the door of the Hunts Point market. Unfortunately, the railroad has not been competitive enough, and that has not taken off. It’s not only with our yard, it’s with the entire city. The truck competition, they’re just smarter. The railroads just haven’t been able to grapple with the competition.

Different corridors of the city have been identified as industrial. We’re zoned M2-3, which is the heaviest industry. We’re not a park. You can’t build high rises here. You can’t build a Yankee Stadium. But we preserve industry because, for example, you see this facility here, where we take the solid waste? If it’s not here, it’s going to be somewhere else in the Bronx. Every borough has to have their own transfer station.

On whether the yard could be rezoned:

We’re zoned industrial and we’re supported by both the state and the city, as made clear by the FreshDirect proposal. Could someone change that policy 30 years from now? I don’t know. But right now we’ve got nothing but support from federal, state and local governments.

The FreshDirect site from Randall's Island, across the Bronx Kill. Photo by David L. Lewis

On FreshDirect:

On all levels, people get misinformation. For example on the weekend, someone said we already started construction with FreshDirect. You need building permits. I wish I could do things that quickly. It‘s going to take us nine months before we can even start building. We have to show the city the design, what are you going to do about the sewer, the water – we have to bring that all in.

On the challenge by two City Council members:

I believe that they are listening to their constituency. Their job is to – that’s what they’re there to do. I’m not going to criticize them for that. If I were running, I know what I would do. I would say, OK, I want Mr. Galesi here and I want to bring in – I don’t know how many leaders there are, four leaders, whatever it is. Let’s sit around the table and talk about it. We had no idea that there was whatever level of opposition. We had no idea that was going on.

On whether the Yard is good for the neighborhood:

When we were here, I was taking dead bodies out of here, (of people) shooting up. Nobody wanted to come here. Now, people are complaining there’s too much traffic. Well, that’s what everybody complains about. So the question is, if you and I were here in 1988, you’d be thanking me for doing this. Here we are now, 2012, people are screaming we got a sweetheart deal. No, we didn’t. We bid – no one else wanted it! It doesn’t count anymore. It gets erased.

On the local community board:

I work with them. Actually, when I started with John Lindsay, we created the role of the community board. We needed grassroots, and it’s important. But at the same time, they make these community boards into fiefdoms, where people really think they own the community.

I don’t think there’s outrage (about the FreshDirect deal.) I think it’s this big. [He holds two fingers a couple of inches apart.]

We are consistent with how we started back in ’88, so what’s the protest? The protest is that there are certain people, rightly or wrongly, who feel that this community has not gotten the quality of life things. And it’s probably true, OK?…But when you’ve got a project that’s been defined – dammit, it’s defined to do this – we have an obligation to do this, this FreshDirect (deal).

On the lack of communication about the FreshDirect deal:

Five months before, I knew it was going to happen, I called [community] board one. He said, when the guys are ready let him know. The city of New York, through the Economic Development Corporation, started the process. When they started the process, what is it to give a little notice? And you know why? Fear is caused by lack of communication, because you know what they think? They think they’re trying to pull the wool over the eyes.

There was actually two sites in the Bronx, I don’t know where the other site was, and there was one in Jersey. So we were one of three. So we’re passive. Obviously we try to put our best foot forward – but it’s really government who’s trying to preserve a business, which they have to do. And the EDC should be applauded, the mayor should, the governor should be applauded. I don’t think there was an abuse here.

FreshDirect, in the same way as the New York Post, this is a beachhead. In 1988, you and I would be talking a different story. That’s the only thing I can say. The cornerstone was laid in ’88. Here we are in 2012, and somebody wants to change the cornerstone. There’s a lot of history behind that, you know. Is this community better off than it was in ’88? Yes. Can we take total credit for it? No. Can we take (some) credit for it? Yes. We’re an asset.

On the Randall’s Island connector:

We were asked by the city if we would cooperate with them to build a linear pathway under the Hell Gate bridge so that the people of the Bronx could connect to Randall’s Island for recreation. And we agreed. We’ve been working on this for five years. So we finally, I think we signed the agreement. So now, it’s part of the linear park here. The linear park is our contribution. As far as everything else, this is an industrial site. The track hugs the water, and that’s active and dangerous.