By Joy Bergmann
Jeffrey and Sandra Smith are fed up. They say e-commerce grocery delivery trucks from Fresh Direct and Amazon Fresh monopolize commercial parking spaces, double-park, block turning lanes and obstruct bike lanes near their apartment at 89th and Amsterdam. “This is a takeover of the neighborhood in a very bad way,” says Jeffrey. “It’s total madness.”
It’s also – as the sage Yogi Berra once said – deja vu all over again.
Back in June 2016, Community Board 7’s Transportation Committee grilled Fresh Direct execs on their “depot” distribution model in which trucks occupy commercial parking spaces for long periods – up to 8 hours – while employees distribute groceries in a multi-block radius. Commercial parking regulations limit metered usage of such spots to two hours – depending on the exact location.
And yet, according to the Smiths, the trucks stay put, do not always feed the meter, rarely get multiple tickets in a given day and never seem to get towed. NYPD reps did not respond to WSR’s request for comment on the Smiths’ observations. But, according to one officer, NYPD Traffic Enforcement agents issued 63,995 parking summonses to commercial vehicles in the 24th Precinct in 2018. The Smiths wonder why enforcement hasn’t been more aggressive.
“Why do they get special treatment?” Sandra asks. “It’s constant. As one of their trucks finishes, another one pulls in behind it to continue holding the space. If every company were allowed to work the way Fresh Direct is allowed to work, we’d literally have no parking in this city.”
Turns out, special treatment is the foundation of the NYC Department of Finance’s “Stipulated Fine Program” for delivery-centric companies. Created during the Bloomberg administration, the program reduces parking violation fines for participating companies if they waive their right to contest tickets. The result is a two-tiered justice system for parking scofflaws: one set of consequences for ordinary folks, another for companies including Fresh Direct.
However, a proposed City Council bill from Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides would nullify the Stipulated Fine Program by “prohibiting any city agency from agreeing to reduce fines for parking violations in exchange for a waiver of the right to contest parking violations.” Upper West Side Council Members Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
“We want to apply maximum pressure to ensure companies adhere to the rules around parking and idling,” Levine says, noting that this legislation is just part of what needs to happen if the city is to get serious about the “congestion crisis” plaguing Manhattan. Levine is also an advocate for congestion pricing, residential parking permits and more off-peak-hours deliveries. “This is a crisis that needs to be attacked on many fronts. Ensuring delivery trucks follow the rules is one important piece of it. Alone, it won’t be enough.”
The streetscape has not evolved with the rise of online shopping and customers’ expectation of effortless convenience, served up one household at a time.
“We’ve got to rethink this whole delivery thing,” says CB7 Chair Roberta Semer. “And it needs to be a citywide plan.”
In recent years, the Smiths say, three grocery stores near their home – a Gristedes, a Key Food and a Food Emporium – have closed. More e-commerce competition and rising rents have likely been contributing factors. Only one new grocery store, Trader Joe’s on Columbus and 93rd, has opened. And Trader Joe’s recently announced that home delivery services will no longer be available in any of their NYC stores as of March 1st. And so, with fewer places to shop and schlep easily, more locals are apparently choosing the online option, to the Smiths’ dismay.
“We can’t have it both ways,” says Sandra. “As a community, either you support and buy local even if you have to pay a little more. Or if you want it cheaper or easier, you have to face the consequences of that. Environmental, everything. We all want it cheap, cheap, but don’t think about what that does. Not just in our neighborhood. It’s everywhere.”
WSR reached out to representatives from Amazon, Fresh Direct and Peapod for comment.
An Amazon spokesperson told us that Manhattan deliveries for Amazon Fresh are made by independent delivery service providers who are expected to follow Amazon’s supplier code of conduct and follow all applicable laws. The company says it takes community feedback seriously and will work with delivery providers to address the situation. The spokesperson urged locals to call Amazon’s 24/7 customer service line with any concerns. The number is 1-888-280-4331.
However many calls and 311 complaints get made, lasting solutions will not be easy to come by on our small, shared island.
Some residents have asked: Could Fresh Direct and others rent vacant storefronts as mini warehouses instead of using trucks as delivery hubs?
Maybe. But that would likely require city zoning changes. Retail spaces are zoned differently than warehouses, according to testimony at the 2016 CB7 meeting with Fresh Direct.
More to the point: It’s not as cost-effective for delivery services to pay hefty commercial rents. Even if trucks receive multiple tickets a day, and even if companies end up paying the full fines for violations, it’s still likely a better deal than an inflexible lease.
Some commercial real estate agents say they, too, want a change to the parking status quo.
Adam Katz of Roxann Real Estate says his firm has recently managed to rent out retail spaces at 90th and Amsterdam to a restaurant and a preschool, but he shares the Smiths’ concerns. “We’re against the use of Amsterdam Avenue being used for large delivery trucks or any vehicles that obstruct traffic or pedestrian movement,” he wrote to WSR. “The presence of any large delivery trucks is anathema to us. We would like to avoid them being in the area.”
Roberta Semer says that locals with strong feelings about Fresh Direct in particular should attend the next CB7 Transportation Committee meeting, February 12th at 7 p.m. at 250 W. 87th, 2nd floor, where Fresh Direct representatives are slated to appear once again.
Or, as Yogi Berra also said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”