'It's not the Balkans': Upper East Siders, stung by the 'Times', rally against a waste-transfer station at Asphalt Green
2:30 pm Jun. 4, 20123
As the city prepares to convert a disused marine transfer station off 91st Street for waste-handling purposes, some residents of the surrounding Manhattan neighborhood have the unfamiliar feeling that they're being ignored.
On Friday, they held a rally at the Asphalt Green sports facility on York Avenue to protest City Hall's plans. It was the latest in a series of events organized since 2006, when the City Council passed the Solid Waste Management Plan, mandating that each borough handle its own garbage.
The protests haven't changed the situation much, and in fact The New York Times recently editorialized against the aggrieved locals, saying the Upper East Side ought to do its part, just like the less-fortunate neighborhoods where waste-transfer stations are already situated.
The city Department of Sanitation is current taking contractor bids to rebuild and reactivate the site, which is located on a small pier on the East River.
Jed Garfield, president of Residents for Sane Trash Solutions and a local real estate broker, said the city's plan was inane, and that althought the area doesn't take much of the city's garbage, the residents make up for it by paying more in taxes, among other things.
“I just think it’s very easy, if you don’t live in Manhattan to say, you know, Manhattan isn’t doing its share, but you know from a taking care of the rest of the city perspective, it is," he said. "It’s very much doing its share.”
He agreed with the idea of each borough dealing with its trash, but suggested it was mistake to locate the waste facilities near densely populated residential neighborhoods, and that there were areas on the West Side that made more sense.
Garfield said the Times editorial, entitled "A Fair Way to Handle Trash," was particularly hard to take.
“I mean, I’d be whining if I said it was unfair because the Times can do whatever they want, that’s their choice," he said. "But it’s frustrating at times, because they seem to be very much a mouthpiece of the administration. And again, that’s not to say the administration shouldn’t have a mouthpiece, it’s just that, you know, we want a fair shake.”
The residents aren't merely demonstrating in pursuit of their fair shake; they're also suing. The Gracie Point Community Council, which Garfield's group is associated with, has mired the city's plan in court battles and delays, which the administration blamed, in a quote in the Times editorial, for increasing costs.
“You know, it’s sort of like that what the administration respects is a big kind of hammer, so that’s our hammer,” said Garfield.
But of late, Garfield said, he and his colleagues have put more emphasis on lobbying and community outreach. They're hoping to get 10,000 residents signed up to vote as a bloc in next year's mayoral election.
“You know, politics is an ugly business," he said. "I personally have not had a terrific experience with any of the people that are in office. I have no doubt that there probably are politicians who truly believe in something; I’m sure that there are. I’m not sure that I’ve met any of them yet in my experience. I wouldn’t badmouth any of these people. I think maybe they have a different agenda than I do.”
Opponents frequently pointed out there were housing projects nearby, which in their view negated the economic-justice arguments of the city, which said the other locations were typically poor neighborhoods.
Still, the rally was a well-funded, or at least well-connected effort. An elaborate soundstage rose from Asphalt Green, where Disney Channel actress Caroline Sunshine performed for attendees. The group had security guards, glossy name badges and seven food trucks lined up along York Avenue. Organizers handed out hundreds of free yellow and green t-shirts opposing the plan.
The waste-transfer station, closed for over a decade, floats on the East River and is connected to the street grid with a ramp that bisects the field and bridges the FDR Drive. There, it would be rebuilt with a modern facility to ship garbage outside the city. The plans would keep smells inside the facility and close off views of idling trucks and the park, and an adjacent recreation facility would be maintained.
Still, opponents say the roads would be lined with trucks dropping off approximately 720 tons of garbage each day, adding to truck traffic along nearby York Avenue and raising asthma concerns.
“The city has this refrain which is, ‘Oh, this is a NIMBY issue,’ and they’re trying to pit wealthy Upper East Side versus outer-borough communities,” said David Mack, another member of Residents for Sane Trash Solutions. “This is far from that. They have basically gone to all of the outer-borough communities that are affected by trash and promised that this facility will alleviate their garbage-truck issue.”
An Independent Budget Office report prepared for Councilwoman Jessica Lappin of the Upper East Side showed that the cost per ton of garbage processed by the new facility would be considerably higher over the short term than the current arrangement, by which contracts trucking companies to take the trash away.
Opponents of the facility use this finding to counter the idea that putting the facility in their nieghborhood represented some sort of neighborhood-versus-neighborhood economic justice.
Area resident Michael Cohen said that taxes from high-earning Upper East Side residents were funding schools in Queens or Brooklyn, and said, “It’s not the Balkans, for God's sake. It’s a city. And why would we spend money to build something that isn’t necessary?”
He also said he felt reassured by the Wall Street Journal’s more sympathetic coverage of the dispute, which he found ironic, as an “avid lifelong reader” of the Times.
Representative Carolyn Maloney, whose district includes the Upper East Side, was warmly welcomed by the crowd.
“They imply that for some reason Manhattan’s not doing their fair share, but Manhattan’s garbage does not go to any other borough,” she said. “It does not, in any way, hurt any other borough.”
Marcia Maharam, a resident since 1986, referred to Gracie Mansion, the traditional mayor’s residence, just a few blocks to the south.
“If the mayor was living there, this wouldn’t be happening,” she said.
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