FreshDirect Exec Gets an Earful from Locals at CB7 Meeting

FreshDirect’s Larry Scott Blackmon presenting at CB7 Transportation meeting

By Joy Bergmann

FreshDirect’s Vice President of Public Affairs Larry Scott Blackmon got an earful from Upper West Side residents and business owners at a Community Board 7 Transportation Committee meeting this week.

After presenting the online grocer as a homegrown NYC success story – employing over 3,000 “hard-working individuals” using the city’s “cleanest fleet” of trucks run on “clean diesel” – Blackmon hinted at the recurring issues and complaints locals have about FreshDirect trucks.

“Whenever issues arise, we try to be responsive,” Blackmon said. “We know everything about our vehicles.” In addition to location data, the high-tech trucks communicate driver behavior, including things like acceleration and brake use. Additionally, “Our vehicles do not idle. They are programmed to shut off when the driver leaves the vehicle,” he said, noting that what people do hear running are the trucks’ refrigeration units that keep food temperatures at safe levels.

As e-commerce has grown, so have the challenges for every player. “We’re all fighting for space,” said Blackmon. “We’re living in an e-commerce society. Unfortunately more people are ordering online and from other companies that I won’t name that begin with the letter A. But the reality is that’s what’s happening in our communities.”

The subsequent Q&A session retraced many of the same concerns and scant solutions covered in WSR’s previous reporting. The entire exchange may be viewed on YouTube starting at minute 14:30. Here are a few edited highlights.

CB7’s Andrew Albert: Is it the intention of FreshDirect to not monopolize a particular [parking] location, but to move around the area?

Blackmon: We absolutely move around as much as possible. Again, there is very limited space for deliveries.

CB7’s Howard Yaruss: Have you lobbied the City for more loading zones? We have, to no effect. [Streetsblog has detailed CB7’s unsuccessful attempts to get the NYC Department of Transportation to repurpose some parking spots as loading zones across the UWS.]

Blackmon: Absolutely. We’ve been engaged in conversations with Commissioner [Polly] Trottenberg…and they are looking into it.

CB7’s Richard Robbins: We have laws that you can’t double-park or park 8 hours at a time with your vehicles, which you’re clearly doing on a daily basis. Is it possible for FreshDirect to run its business the way it’s currently set up, operating within the laws of New York City?

Blackmon: We adhere to all traffic laws and if there are issues, we’re in contact with local precincts… The alternative to trucks [handling up to 100 orders per vehicle] is to send individual cars and that would clog the streets… We adhere to all of the laws and if it’s “one-hour standing” we move our trucks.

Multiple audience members: That’s not true!

Blackmon: I’m a little bit shocked in hearing that your specific issue has never been addressed because that’s not our culture, not our policy. [He encouraged people with complaints to contact his office at publicaffairs@freshdirect.com]

CB7’s Mark Diller: As a policy matter, I’m concerned about one company occupying our streets as its distribution center. Because if I’m Amazon, that’s going to be my new model… Somebody’s going to follow in your footsteps and suddenly we’re not going to be able to use our streets as through streets.

FD trucks on Amsterdam, photo from Michael Staff.

The FreshDirect trucks parked at 89th and Amsterdam and at 82nd and Amsterdam are particular sore spots with locals.

Marty Hoffman showed pictures of FreshDirect trucks illegally parked in the marked “hatched area” of 89th and Amsterdam, blocking bike lanes and reducing visibility for pedestrians, bikers and turning motorists. “It’s an accident waiting to happen,” he said. “And if they’re doing it on 89th, they’re doing it elsewhere.”

Husseyin Ozer, owner of Bodrum Mediterranean restaurant on that block, said the irritating noise from FreshDirect trucks’ refrigeration units has cost him patronage. “We pay for a sidewalk café,” he said. “I had people refusing to sit…from lunchtime until almost closing time.”

Michael Staff, who runs the bars Jake’s Dilemma and The Gin Mill on Amsterdam between 80th and 82nd, said FreshDirect trucks block views of his storefronts from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. He says he’s tried notifying public officials and calling police, resorting on occasion to self-policing the situation when a second truck comes to pull in behind an emptied, departing vehicle. “I’ve gone and stood in the empty spot. And the guy says, ‘you’re not going to let me park?’ And I’m like, no, I’m not going to let you park. You do not own the streets.”

What FreshDirect and 1,361 other delivery-heavy companies do have is a volume discount of sorts on parking fines, thanks to the city’s Stipulated Fine Program [STP]. Participating firms agree not to contest any parking violations in court in exchange for discounted fines averaging about 25% less than the face value of a ticket.

A new report from the city’s Independent Budget Office estimates that the top 10 most heavily fined companies saved as much as $10 million on their summonses in 2018. FreshDirect ranked at #6 on the list, having paid $1,784,018 in fines on 23,220 tickets received in 2018 and reaped up to $580,237 in savings as a STP participant.

CB7 members discussed the merits of a pending City Council bill that would nullify STP but did not reach a consensus.

Some felt it makes administrative sense for the city to accept slightly less money if it speeds fine collections and keeps overburdened court systems from further clogging. Others saw STP as fundamentally unfair to smaller businesses and individuals who must pay higher fines than big firms for the same types of violations.

People did agree, however, that the current UWS delivery streetscape and provider business models must change to accommodate consumer demand for convenience services while preserving the safety and sanity of residents.

The problem is that no one seems to know how to accomplish that aim.

“We’re just going to keep going around in circles forever unless there’s a policy change of some sort. Maybe it’s loading zones; I don’t know what the ultimate solution is. However I do believe we’re going to see some changes based on our squeaky wheels tonight… the FreshDirect truck won’t be on [89th] anymore,” said CB7 member Doug Kleiman. “But I also know they also provide a service that is very much appreciated.”

NEWS | 30 comments | permalink
    1. Scott says:

      Duh, just g̶i̶v̶e̶ sell them some parking. What is wrong with DOT? Can DeBlasio do anything right?

    2. HHH says:

      Interesting point here: “CB7’s Mark Diller: As a policy matter, I’m concerned about one company occupying our streets as its distribution center. Because if I’m Amazon, that’s going to be my new model… Somebody’s going to follow in your footsteps and suddenly we’re not going to be able to use our streets as through streets.”

      With the boom in online ordering of everything, consumers and residents have generated this very issue of companies starting to treat streets as distribution centers. What IS the solution here?

    3. your_neighbor says:

      The issue with creating new truck loading zones is that loading zones are meant to be used for 15 minutes to an hour while merchants get their deliveries.
      The Fresh Direct guys will monopolize the new loading zones all day so we’d just be giving them free all day, all night parking.

    4. Longterm uws says:

      With bus lanes, now bike lanes, how about NO parking on the avenues to accommodate delivery trucks? This would help traffic tremendously. I believe that is the bigger issue with traffic flow. You cannot have it all. No one I know needs a to get around in the city – use public transit. Park your car in a garage if you have the money to own one here. I see it as a luxury living in Manhattan.

    5. Charles says:

      CB7 and UWS residents should continue to push hard for designated delivery zones. UPS, FedEx, Fresh Direct et al aren’t going away. Take some on-street parking and repurpose it for deliveries to mitigate double parking, idling, etc. The parking can and should be priced. Delivery companies can pay for parking just as they’re clearly willing to pay for traffic tickets. Whatever the scenario, that cost is passed to the consumer anyway.

      On-street parking for privately owned cars is the worst use of public space and the generator of too many negative externalities. Thank you.

    6. jerry says:

      It’s the new UWS. We need to eat, Trader Joe’s is great, but after that, where do we go? My wife, who is a professional chef, finds Fresh Direct to be offering fish and meat of exceptional quality at reasonable prices. It’s a sign of the times.

      • Kat French says:

        Trader Joe’s is fine but you live in a food paradise… try some of the local stores! Zabar’s, Broadway Farm, the “organic upstairs” at Fairway, Zingone Brothers, Westside Market, Orwashers’s, Morton Williams, to name just a few. By shopping at locally-owned stores, you not only get the best food and the best service, you also support the character of the neighborhood.

    7. Mr. Solution says:

      Solution: Fresh Direct could buy the D’Agostino’s locations, and use THOSE as distribution centers, since no one shops there anymore.

      • Uwsider says:

        To take if a step further, there are lots of empty stores that could be used as local warehouses and distribution centers. Companies could share spaces inside, do quick drop off/unloading, and not block the streets for hours on end.

        • PedestrianJustice says:

          Zoning would have to be reconfigured for this idea to work. Retail spaces are currently allowed, but “warehouses” are not.

        • Shane says:

          Definitely an idea worth pursuing. Retail locations are empty because online vendors are taking advantage of “free” (or at least very cost efficient) street real estate. So we all are paying the price that those should pay who use those deliveries.

          So why not require warehouse/delivery centers at the bottom of those new highrises? They seem to plan with a lot of “empty” space anyway.

          Meaningful zoning changes supported by the community should be the least problem.

        • Lunabee says:

          I like the idea of creating drop off centers. But, can you imagine what might happen to the sidewalks in front of said centers? All those hand trucks coming and going may create another problem. No quick solution to this.

    8. The Gershman says:

      Nice to see you mention the Stipulated Fine Program, but the damage done by that program is far worse than the IBO report you mentioned, as Streetsblog reported:

      https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2019/02/13/update-citys-stipulated-fine-program-costing-taxpayers-tens-of-millions-more/

    9. Shane says:

      Using the streets as defacto storage facility should be outlawed. What’s wrong with renting a warehouse to park and unload trucks, and deliver from there? USPS has post offices serving as delivery centers. Maybe others should do that as well?

      In fact, it may be worth having shared delivery hubs in each neighborhood and require all delivery trucks to use them instead of our streets, parking spots, and bike lanes.

    10. Rafael Nadal says:

      Billie Jean King leading rally this weekend to protest FreshDirect parking in front of Theodore Roosevelt Park.

    11. Lisa says:

      We can figure out how to dedicate miles and miles of under-utilized bike lanes but we can’t figure out how to park trucks that provide a service that is used by most of us.

      • Josh says:

        Interesting how you feel bike lanes are underutilized because you dont use them, but that Fresh Direct is used by most of us because you do use them.

        If I were to respond with the same mindset, I’d be happy that the city has finally figured out how to help most of us with bike lanes and why cant they fix the issue with Fresh Direct since it is underutilized? If it wasnt obvious, while I use the bike lanes every day, I never use Fresh Direct.

        The reality though, is that according to actual evidence, bike lanes make it safer for ALL of us that use the street in any way, from pedestrians to cyclists to drivers. And many more people shop in actual stores than use Fresh Direct.

      • Longterm uws says:

        Well said!

    12. Rosalie M. Osian says:

      I read this article about the discontent of Fresh Direct’s delivery and frankly it’s hard to fathom. If you have anything delivered in Manhattan you, as a consumer, are accountable for the environmental harm as well. Are we pretending otherwise? The doormen run shipping and receiving desks. Trash collection spends hours and fuel collecting the packaging! Visit the stores in your neighborhoods so they don’t keep on closing. Carry your goods home and be part of the solution. Whining to Amazon and Fresh Direct etc. etc. is shameful.

      • Jane O'Shaughnessy says:

        Retail is going away and not coming back, and e-commerce is booming. The UWS has tons of empty retail locations which cannot be rented, while Fresh Direct is using the streets as warehouses. This seems to point the way to a solution. Yes, there would be a need for change in zoning and lots of kinks to be worked out, but it seems an obvious way to go.

        • Josh says:

          It’s not that the stores cant be rented. It’s that the landlords want too much rent that only a bank or big box store could afford it. Roma Liquors on Amsterdam Ave tried continuously to get a lease back in what was 733 Amsterdam (now 175 W95) but they kept refusing hoping a big box store would take the space. The space has been empty for years now, since they built it, and Roma opened up on the other side of Amsterdam.

    13. AC says:

      Has anyone seen the garbage truck use the bike lanes? They scratch up the parked cars. The bike lanes are never cleared of snow.

      Get rid of these useless lanes! You have idiots with E-bikes cruising on them and in the opposite direction.

      What a disaster.

    14. michael stearns says:

      Just remember that increasing the number of loading zones is bound to decrease the number of parking spaces for cars, whose owners pay to use the public streets through gas taxes and registration fees.

      • EagleEye says:

        Michael,
        The value of a parking space in our neighborhood is at least $600/month. The amount you pay in gas and registration is a very small fraction of this. The difference is what you steal from the rest of us. Think of the gardens and play areas we could create if we eliminated the cars “squatting” on our public streets.

      • Josh says:

        Michael,

        As a driver myself, I get why drivers can be upset at losing parking spaces. But the amount of money we pay in registration barely covers the administrative costs of registering vehicles. Yes, gas taxes go to the roads. However, since gas taxes have not kept up with inflation, gas taxes do not cover the costs of our roads. In NYC, for example, the DOT gets more funding from the general fund (taxes on everyone) than they do from gas taxes. So while I see why you want to make your argument, the reasoning you chose is flawed.

    15. Lynn says:

      I am so sick of UWS residents complaining about Fresh Direct. I don’t even use them and I don’t mind their presence in the neighborhood. Their delivery people are extremely professional and nice, I actually feel safe seeing the truck in the early morning when I’m walking my dog. They take up a spot. So what. If you want to live in Manhattan their will always be a lot of delivery trucks. We live on line and making our lives easier we order on line a lot.

    16. Max says:

      I’ve lived on Amsterdam btwn 101 and 102 since July 2018. Fresh Direct parked across the street by the soccer fields all day every day.

      • Jo jo says:

        They used to park there. I noticed as of a year or so ago they now park on Amsterdam and 98th. Not sure why they moved.

      • Jo jo says:

        I stand corrected. They used to stand on Amsterdam between 100 and 101. Now they have one on Amsterdam on 98 and apparently 102 too. Wow.