By Jordan Moss
They came to watch the “Battle for Brooklyn.”
They left armed with some advice for their fledgling fight in the Bronx.
The documentary film, shown at the Bronx Documentary Center in Melrose last Thursday evening, chronicles the seven-year civic trench war against the Atlantic Yards development project in downtown Brooklyn. About 30 south Bronx residents and activists, all adamantly opposed to Fresh Direct building a factory in the south Bronx’s Harlem River Yards, came to see it and learn some lessons about what they’re up against.
The Brooklyn project, led by mega-developer Bruce Ratner, is bigger and more expensive and ultimately handed defeat to project’s opponents.
But the story still resonated in the Boogie Down.
“I had tears in my eyes,” said Ed Garcia Conde, a Melrose blogger and activist. “It’s totally different but it’s the same.”
What is the same, many said, is the lack of a democratic process.
“None of this ever came before our community board,” said Mychal Johnson, a member of Community Board 1, referring to the Fresh Direct deal.
In Brooklyn, despite over $700 million in public subsidies, not a single politician ever got a vote on the matter. Unelected leaders of state agencies and authorities like the MTA were the decision makers.
“I had more power than elected officials or Letitia James did,” said Daniel Goldstein, the leader of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the volunteer organization that fought Atlantic Yards, referring to the Democratic Council member from Brooklyn who was a vocal opponent of the plan.
Goldstein had influence because he was the only resident who refused to leave his apartment building in the footprint of the project which, like many others, was going to be seized and leveled through eminent domain. He participated in an informal panel discussion after the movie, as did James, essentially Goldstein’s co-star in the documentary.
No elected official had a vote on the $120 million Fresh Direct subsidy deal either, though Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. has been its champion, arguing that it will create jobs in the borough.
Fresh Direct will move its nearly 2,000 current jobs from its current Queens factory, but only about 300 new jobs will be created by 2015, followed by similar or much smaller workforce additions through 2020 according to the MOU (memorandum of understanding) signed by the borough president and the company. Opponents say that’s not very much considering the large chunk of taxpayer subsidies the project is expected to receive.
Other objections include a spike in truck traffic in one of the worst asthma zones in the city. The company has a five-year “goal” to make its entire fleet electric but the MOU is nonbinding.
And the facility could interrupt the Harlem River Greenway planning that environmental advocates have been pushing for years.
But there may be other avenues to block the project, the panelists said.
“That’s ripe for litigation,” James told the activists, referring to the fact that there hasn’t been an environmental review of the site since 1994. “You’ve got a great lawsuit on your hands and I hope New York Lawyers for the Public Interest takes it on.”
James and Goldstein encouraged the group, which has named itself South Bronx Unite/Stop Fresh Direct, to utilize social media and to cultivate and educate members of the press who are likely to continue covering the issue.
The Industrial Development Agency, a state entity which governs public subsidies, already voted to support the plan but a couple of other entities like the Empire State Development Corporation may still hold hearings, according to Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York.
Regardless of the outcome, film director Michael Galinsky, who came with Goldstein and James to Melrose for the event, said to keep an eye on what’s important.
“It’s a positive thing bringing all these people together,“ he said.