The Issues Today

Yard Boss Speaks Out

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.

Balancing Act Between Jobs and Green Space

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.”

Over Walls, Under Fences: Community Access Now

Over Walls, Under Fences: Community Access Now

Members of Friends of Brook Park on a canoe trip in the Bronx Kill. Photo by Dirk Ewers

Dirk Ewers took a quick look around as he snuck into the private property that separates Lincoln Avenue from the Harlem River waterfront. His two sons, 16 and 7, were close behind, pulling the family’s canoe on a cart.

“We sneak in there and it’s all bushes and trash and stuff,” said Ewers, 42, of Port Morris.

He and his sons approached the water’s edge where rocks are tied to a fence to prevent erosion.

“That’s where we go in,” he said.

As they placed their boat on the river they glanced across to the Manhattan side where they saw cyclists riding on Harlem River Greenway.

“There are no facilities like that here,” Ewers said.

But that does not stop the Ewers and other South Bronx residents from getting onto the water. While activists like the Harlem River Working Group push for public waterfront access, residents are lobbying for change in their own way –by getting out on the river, using access routes that are not always safe or legal.

“You have to be a daredevil to get to the river.”  — Eve Baron

Because the marshy shore of the Harlem River is bordered by a railroad track and surrounded by industrial and commercial buildings, they are forced to cross busy streets, trespass through privately owned lots and slink around fences to enjoy the river in their own backyard.

Audio: Community Voices

At a neighborhood forum, at an unapproved fishing spot at the end of Lincoln Avenue, over a barbecue in Mill Pond Park — users of the Harlem River speak out on their waterfront. (Produced by Jorteh Senah)

Ewers and his sons often use the makeshift access point on Lincoln Avenue, near a vacant lot behind Oz Moving & Storage Inc. But when they take canoe trips with the youth group of Friends of Brook Park, a community-based environmental group in Mott Haven, they get to the river from a Bronx Kill access point on Randall’s Island. The Bronx Kill is a narrow strait of water between Randall’s Island and the Bronx that connects the Harlem to the upper East River.

From the Bronx Kill they row the canoes to where the Harlem meets the Hudson. The group chooses to launch their boats into the Bronx Kill from Randall’s Island because it is safer than accessing the Kill by land from the Bronx, according to Ewers.

“It’s really awful, you walk right next to the highway and there is a switchback where you go up to the bridge,” he said. “It’s very hazardous, there’s no structure. It becomes even more hazardous during low tide. You can only take one canoe at a time.”

The Pratt Center for Community Development is working with local residents to learn how they currently use the waterfront.

“There is no question that access is a big issue,” said Eve Baron, the senior fellow for policy and planning at the center. “There are definitely people who are passionate about boating on the Harlem River.”

But Baron knows that these boaters often take risks.

“When you are finally on the water it’s pleasant. It’s a great experience for everyone, especially the kids.” — Dirk Ewers

“You have to be a daredevil to get to the river,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Ewers has been rowing on the Harlem River for the past three years.

“When you are finally on the water it’s pleasant,” he said. “It’s a great experience for everyone, especially the kids.”

The Ewers and other members of Friends of Brook Park, as part of the Harlem River Working Group, advocate for waterfront access and restoration along the Harlem River and the Bronx Kill. The group’s mission is to create a recreational place along the southern part of the river where the community can take back the land from the industries that overflow it.

“There is no single official waterfront access for six miles,” said Harry Bubbins, the director of Friends of Brook Park. ”It has divorced the community from engaging with the waterfront and allowed these industries to try to stream in and take over the rest of our land.”

Friends of Brook Park is not the only group using the waterfront.

Misa Tiam, 30 of Manhattan, goes to the water’s edge to take pictures of used motorcycles he sells online. He said the area creates a natural backdrop for his bikes.

“It’s raw, rural, ghetto. You know ghetto fabulous,” Tiam said.

Community members have been trespassing through vacant lots to access the waterfront for generations, according to Antonio Bassatt, the president of the Metropolitan Wholesale & Retail Beer & Soda Distributors Inc. He has been doing business in the area since 1972.

Mott Haven residents just have to look across the Harlem River to see a gleaning waterfront esplanade in Manhattan. The Harlem River Park opened in 2008. Slideshow by Matt McNulty

Bubbins is proud to follow their path. In his view, opening up the waterfront to the public would be a political act. He believes Mott Haven, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation, is also one of the most overlooked by the government. He said providing waterfront access would give the respect the community deserves.

“It would help us achieve greater self-respect if we don’t have to slink around,” Bubbins said. “Why can people fish off the Upper East Side greenways and we don’t have comparable amenities on this side of the water?”