White Elephant?

Neighbors See Red
On Asphalt Green
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, June 7th, 2013

Local issues tend to attract little public attention except by individuals and corporations who think they will be discomfited or enriched by proposed facilities that the city or state is trying to build. The antis claim that hardship will result from any change to the city map, and that any new construction will aggravate the residences and business in the surrounding area and add to overcrowding at their local schools. The old saying N.I.M.B.Y. (Not In My Back Yard) has morphed into B.A.N.A.N.A. (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody).

In some situations claims of local hardship are valid. In other cases they are not. However, it is not sound public policy to decide major matters on the basis of the opinion of small groups of people who will be benefited or harmed by a particular plan.

What responsible citizens should do while dealing with issues before the community is to measure the benefit the project will provide against the harm, both now and in the future, and try to judge what is the long term interest of the neighborhood and the city as a whole. These expectations may change quickly as new facts may be discovered about a proposed project, its sponsorship, its cost and the impact of construction on the neighborhood.

The marine transfer station at East 91st St. was first built in 1940. Designed by eminent architects, it is basically a giant enclosed dump truck. It closed in 1999 when the landfill at Fresh Kills on Staten Island was covered and the barges that launched from Yorkville had nowhere to deposit the trash they had collected. There was a public celebration, with city officials taking part, when the site was closed and slated for demolition. The residents of the surrounding neighborhoods welcomed the departure of scores of malodorous garbage trucks, the improvement in air quality, the drop in asthma rates and the return of access to the waterfront along with the increased health of the East River and the marine life she carries.

The most noticeable change was the conversion of one of the buildings from an asphalt dump to Asphalt Green, a public health facility which has playgrounds, outdoor ball courts and track-and-field property. Inside, there is a first-class gymnasium with Olympic size pools and state-of-the-art exercise equipment. It has been used as a training facility for Olympians and served thousands of children from every borough. Asphalt Green is a treasure for the city.

When the East 91st St facility closed, the trucks that used to go there were re-routed to New Jersey via the George Washington Bridge. In 2006, the Bloomberg Administration unveiled its Solid Waste Management Plan, which was designed to make the system rely more heavily on rail and water transport of residential and industrial waste in order to help reduce heavy truck traffic throughout the city.

The Solid Waste Management Plan includes three main facilities in Manhattan: the East 91st St Marine Transfer Station, another transfer station at West 59th St that would take commercial waste, and a recycling center on Gansevoort Peninsula on the Hudson River at 13th Avenue (sic). The city has already broken ground on the marine facility at East 91st St, digging trenches for plumbing that would carry fuel to the site.

Opponents of the re-opening of the East 91st St Marine Transfer Station point to the fact that there has been no progress so far on developing the other sites in Manhattan which means that the area would bear the burden of processing all of the borough’s waste. Developing the other sites first would divert a major portion of the payload to a more industrial area, one that is already heavy with truck traffic due to the many piers, ship terminals and other utilitarian facilities in place on the Hudson – most notably a sanitation department vehicle depot at 59th St at 12th Avenue.

Supporters of the plan, who say it is a form of “environmental justice,” have raised race as an argument. They are basing their support for the plan on racial factors and, ironically, feel that racial profiling and the burdening of an area based on its racial make-up is a form of justice. They make this claim despite the fact that the site is a few short blocks from East Harlem, which would also become laden with truck traffic, and that it is surrounded by housing projects. They say that Manhattan does not have its “fair share” of waste transfer stations. Building one on the Upper East Side is only fair. Some accuse opponents of the East 91st St waste station of racism. Former controller William C. Thompson strongly opposes the dump. Most mayoral candidates oppose the 91st St station or hedge on the issue.

The residents of the Upper East Side have not made the argument that the facility should not return to their neighborhood because other residents deserve the burden more. They say that no residential area should host all of a borough’s refuse. They have made no claims of privilege or advanced pedigree. They believe that the most densely populated residential area in the city should not be inundated by droves of hulking mobile dumps, teeming with trash and the occasional rat, that would drive directly through playgrounds and a health facility widely used by residents and children who come from various neighborhoods throughout the city to use it.

I am not directly impacted by the project because I live seven blocks south and one block west of the proposed facility, but I have lived in Yorkville for fifty years. I remember all too clearly the trucks lining York Avenue all the way down to the mid-eighties spewing their toxic fumes over the environs.

We are also troubled by expensive consultants’ reports where the results are often dictated by the person or organization which is paying for the study. I have about as much faith in their store-bought conclusions as I do in the tobacco industry when their lobbyists try to convince the government not to enact anti-tobacco measures. They collect “authorities” whose purchased opinions are trotted out at hearings. Professional witnesses may in fact be telling the truth. But there is no reason to believe that anything they say is true just because they said so.

Another important factor is the need to avoid building a plant that will become a white elephant. Nassau County blundered a few years ago by building a recycling plant that never worked properly and had to be demolished. Who knows what the state of the art in the disposition of solid waste will be by the time this plant is finished? We do not want to build a plant to be told upon its opening years from now that it is obsolete. Hundreds of millions of dollars is too much for the taxpayers of any area to pay on a dubious endeavor.

Do I know for certain that this will happen? No, I do not. I don't have access to all the information that has been compiled and I certainly do not know what is likely to be invented in the near future. But it does seem highly unlikely that the zenith of human knowledge in the disposition of solid waste should have been reached by June, 2013 and that great advancements in this highly researched area are not expected to occur.

I consider myself to be liberal on some issues and conservative I others. I am liberal on public policy issues such as the right to choose, stemming censorship, etc.

I am conservative on spending taxpayer money on projects whose value is unproven. I oppose tearing up neighborhoods and disenfranchising people, if that can be avoided. And I like the urban landscape of the city in which I grew up.

If the transfer stations scheme turns out to be the most economical, efficient and environmentally friendly I would not oppose it just on principle. But I do not believe that will be the case because while we continue to make strides in the technology to deal with solid waste we have also made great strides in creating a lot more.

To summarize, we favor recycling and oppose truck traffic on city streets. This project at this time and this place fails to pass the smell test. If we build it, the chances are that years from now we will be cleaning up the mess.

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Neighbors See Red

This letter gives a well-researched analysis of the dump situation and hits the spot!

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