By Jessica Brockington
Local residents showed up to a public Community Board 7 meeting on Tuesday night expecting to speak with representatives for FreshDirect, but the company decided to skip the meeting altogether. Instead, FreshDirect is planning to meet privately with the committee at a future date, according to Andrew Albert, co-chair of the Community Board’s Transportation Committee.
“Apparently they don’t want to face the public,” Albert said. “They will attend a much smaller meeting, but we certainly want to hear what you have to say,” he told those in attendance.
The online supermarket, which offers unprecedented convenience to some – the disabled, elderly, and the over-scheduled, for instance – is creating a dangerous nuisance by setting up street-based distribution centers, according to Albert.
Committee members and residents raised concerns about double-parking, unloading in bus stops, idling their engines, using noisy refrigeration units and staking out parking spots for months at a time.
“We’ve recommended they find another place to distribute,” Albert told the crowd. “They’ve chosen not to do that.”
Gus Stone, a neighbor on 90th Street, said he had reached out to the 20th and 24th Precincts asking for stronger enforcement against the company’s illegal traffic practices.
“Their business model assumes they’re going to get all these tickets. The trucks all have tickets lining the window every day,” Stone said.
Richard Robbins, a member of the Transportation Committee, expressed his support of the services offered by the company.
“I like them. I don’t want to put them out of business,” Robbins said. “A lot of Upper West Siders use it, which is the root of the issue. If we don’t want to say ‘Go Away,’ we need to come up with a solution.”
Lillian Moore, another member of the committee, was concerned that the company had cooperated in the past and been amenable to community suggestions.
“They were willing to work with us,” she said.
“They haven’t changed their MO at all,” he said. “They’ve commandeered blocks, reduced the flow of traffic and city buses and other deliveries.”
Mark Diller, Secretary of CB7, asked why FreshDirect wasn’t renting space locally for their distribution.
“Last time they were here, you said that their long term solution can’t be to rent space in the community the way everyone does,” he said.
Dan Zweig, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said that because they aren’t selling retail they can’t rent space. Local zoning doesn’t allow for food distribution.
Diller called it a unique problem and warned against trying to find a solution specifically for this one company.
“We’ve seen how they’re using the streets of New York for warehouse distribution. If any other business tried to do that, we’d be in worse shape,” he said.
Expanding commercial parking was offered as a solution, although committee members pointed out that as soon as commercial spots were available they would be snapped up by other businesses making deliveries in the area.
But other businesses make their deliveries and then leave, while FreshDirect finds a location and stays for months, Albert pointed out.
Committee members were not concerned with the potential for any unfair competition FreshDirect might pose for the brick and mortar retailers.
“These people are not putting grocery stores out of business,” Zweig said. Decades of escalating rents and low profit margins for grocery stores are the problem, he explained.
Committee Member Miki Fiegel agreed. “The profit margin on grocery stores is very low. Something like a half of a percent,” she said.
“But is it fair to give [FreshDirect] free warehouse space in the street?” Diller countered. “We’re subsidizing FreshDirect.”
Zweig suggested convincing the company to be more neighborly.
“We need to talk with FreshDirect. If it doesn’t fit their business model, then it won’t work.”
In a written statement supplied to WSR after the meeting, David Helfenbein, spokesperson for FreshDirect, declined to comment on their no-show Tuesday night or on whether they are planning a smaller meeting with just CB7 members. Their statement to WSR reads as follows:
“FreshDirect has been working closely with Community Board 7 and will continue to do so. We carry an extremely strong sense of responsibility toward all the communities we serve, including Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As part of this commitment, we are invested in being environmentally friendly with advanced technology programmed to immediately shut off our truck engines if left idling past a period of three minutes. Each truck contains a fridge reefer, which cycles on and off to keep food cold. This sound could be mistaken for an engine.
In addition, FreshDirect trucks do not park in bus lanes. All parked trucks are placed strategically throughout the city, serving as hubs to reduce side street congestion.”