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Family-owned Hunts Point bakery up against the city’s anti-organized crime commission

Il Forno Bakery, a private wholesale business located near Hunts Point Produce Market, specializes in savory European-style breads. It’s the target of the city’s commission whose aim it to root out mafia influence in Bronx wholesale markets. Photo Credit: Aliya Chaudhry

Thirteen years ago, Roman Eduardo from the Dominican Republic founded Il Forno Bakery, a family-owned business on Faile Street next to the Hunts Point Produce Market, after he got into a dispute with a bakery where he was worked as a distributor.

Now his daughter Jenny Eduardo, director of sales, is in a different kind of dispute, this time with the Business Integrity Commission, the city agency that targets organized crime influence in the trade waste and wholesale markets.

For reasons that continue to baffle the owners, this city agency dedicated to rooting out mafia influences monitors Il Forno’s private bakery business like it does the public Hunts Point Market. 

The Business Integrity Commission charges public wholesale businesses a steep two-year $4,000 registration fee and the same for a two-year fee for fish vendors, money that must be paid with each subsequent renewal. In addition, the businesses must pay from $100 to $350 for ID’s for every employee. 

“It just sounds so bizarre to me that we have to pay these people to kind of make sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing within our private property,” Eduardo said. “This is not publicly-owned land. This is not a publicly-owned company.”

The Business Integrity Commission was started to regulate public markets located on city property. However, the Rules of the City of New York also designate markets that may be located next to public cooperatives as public markets as well, so that neighboring private wholesale businesses fall under the Business Integrity Commission’s jurisdiction.

“I think it’s just nuts the way that they came about their field of their scope of authority and where they can regulate,” said Eduardo. “I don’t think that was a fair decision as to how or where because literally across the street, I could move my business right across the street and I would not be regulated by the BIC.”

The commission didn’t always enforce regulation of markets outside of the cooperatives. That started following a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market against the city, the commission, Baldor Specialty Foods and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

The produce market disputed the Economic Development Corporation’s decision to lease land to Baldor, according to Terri Sasanow, who represented the EDC in this case. That claim was dismissed, but the produce market also brought a claim against the Business Integrity Commission for failing to regulate markets outside the cooperatives, which was not dismissed.

The court initially ruled against the Business Integrity Commission, but the commission won on appeal. “Despite its legal victory, the Commission ultimately decided to begin regulating adjacent areas in 2009,” said a spokesperson for the commission in a prepared statement over email.

In 2013, officers from the Business Integrity Commission walked into Il Forno’s factory with paperwork to fill out and a demand for the $4000 fee, Eduardo said. The officers, he added, were in uniforms that resembled the police.  Despite initial skepticism about the legitimacy of the commission, Il Forno’s owners eventually complied, submitted the paperwork and paid the fees.

“Kind of a like a shakedown was what it felt like,” Eduardo said.

The personal nature of the questions on the employee ID applications was a concern for both Eduardo and Edward Taylor, President of Down East Seafood, Inc., a small wholesale fish market on Manida Avenue. Both owners said the applications asked personal questions they wouldn’t ask their own employees. Il Forno has around 35 employees and Eduardo estimates that roughly 85 percent of them live in Hunts Point. Taylor said Down East has 60 employees.

The requested information on the applications includes names and addresses of former spouses, work history, whether they’d been fired in the past and criminal convictions. It also asks applicants if they have filed their tax returns on time over the last three years and whether they or their spouses have given or received gifts worth at least $1000 dollars over the last three years.

“It was not a good thing,” Taylor said. “A self-funding city agency comes on private property and asks for money to vet your employees.”

Il Forno had no contact from the Business Integrity Commission after its initial registration until their officers came again in 2016 to drop off the paperwork and request an additional $4000 for a required registration renewal – a process Eduardo never completed.

Jenny Eduardo refused to renew, saying she felt her company “cannot afford to take that hit into cash flow just for no reason.”

The Business Integrity Commission asked her to pay another $4,000 for renewal. “For a small business that’s a pretty big chunk of change. That’s almost like the rent for us. That’s considered as substantial as the rent,” she said.

She didn’t pay the fee and as a result, in 2017, the Business Integrity Commission contacted her again, to give her a $1,000 fine for not complying.

“They came back and said, ‘You haven’t renewed so we’re here to fine you. You’re gonna get a summons.’ I said, ‘Okay, give me the summons, I’ll go and fight at the office,” Eduardo said.

She said two or three officers came to give her the ticket and took a copy of her ID.

“That was another thing that we found kind of weird,” she said. “If you’re just coming in to give us an application, why are there two people or three people? It looks like you’re coming here to take somebody out of here.”

Eduardo had a hearing at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings to dispute the fine in early 2018. The resulting decision was that Eduardo was required to pay it. However, she still has not complied.

Ana Champeny, a staff member at the non-profit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission, said that revenues licensing agencies such as the Business Integrity Commission collect go into the city’s general fund, which is used to pay for city operations.

“Many agencies don’t collect this proportion of their budget in revenues,” Champeny said. “That’s what makes BIC a little unique.” Revenues, she said, are not supposed to cost more than the price of doing the work.

Companies that are approved or denied registration after reviews are listed on the commission’s website. The website also posts reports detailing why a specific company was denied approval. Applications have been denied for reasons such as falsifying information, operating without registration, racketeering and associations with crime.

The Business Integrity Commission says it makes its decisions  “based on a comprehensive review of the application, and information from an in-depth analysis by BIC’s background investigations, legal, investigations, and audit units,” according to its website.

Il Forno has plans to open up a retail location in The Peninsula, a housing complex being built on the site of the now abandoned Spofford Juvenile Detention Center. That area is outside the Business Integrity Commission’s jurisdiction, a factor that influenced its decision to open up a branch in that location.

“While BIC has successfully prevented the wide-scale reemergence of organized crime in these industries, the influence and appearance of these actors and behaviors remains,” the website states. “Clearly, there is still the strong need for investigation, enforcement, and vigilance to prevent theft, fraud, and other manipulation of the industry.”

Eduardo is skeptical of the need for the commission to investigate this, especially the fact that the commission focuses primarily on registrations and applications. “I don’t see that they’re really doing anything anyway so why not just let the police worry about policing?”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Flood-proofing Hunts Point with resilient power

The Hunts Point Produce Market is a $2 to 2.3 billion industry supplying 60 percent of New York City’s produce, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

However, it does not have centralized air conditioning, according to the Hunts Point Resiliency Project.

The project is a joint effort by the Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. Its main aim is to provide the area with more resilient power.

The resiliency project proposed installing a system supplying power, heating and cooling, as well backup power to the fresh produce and meat markets. It is also going to supply heating to the meat market along with cooling and electricity to the produce market.

“All of the buildings are pretty much giant refrigerators,” said Louise Yeung, an employee of the Economic Development Corporation, during a meeting held at The Point in September, referring to the produce market buildings.

The market is currently cooled using industrial rooftop air conditioning units, with each vendor having an individual unit. “The way that they keep all of their produce cold, is pretty much the equivalent of having window AC units on all of the different stalls,” Yeung said.

The market measures 113 acres and has 36 merchants, according to its website.

Myra Gordon, the Executive Director of the Produce Market, declined to comment and requested that vendors not be contacted. Vendors also declined to comment on the phone.

The markets are all cooperatives, and are jointly owned and run by vendors. The land is owned by the city of New York, which also owns the land leased to larger merchants such as Baldor and Dairyland.

Hunts Point is vulnerable to climate and weather-related disasters, particularly flooding. The Food Distribution Center, which consists of the Hunts Point Produce Market, the Hunts Point Cooperative Meat Market and the New Fulton Fish Market, is situated close to the water, putting it at an even higher risk for natural disasters. These disasters could cause a power outage, which would be costly for these markets, as a large portion of the city’s food would be damaged from lack of refrigeration, which was why the Hunts Point markets were chosen for this project.

The Resiliency Project was funded through programs designed to protect against natural disasters and emergencies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a competition in 2013 in response to Hurricane Sandy. The earlier version of the project entered in this competition and was awarded $20 million in 2014. In 2015, New York City gave the project an additional $25 million as part of a grant to address disaster recovery. An additional $26 million in city capital was allocated to the project in May, bringing the total budget up to $71 billion. The funding has to be used by 2022.

The project, launched in 2016, has allocated $61 million to the plant.

The proposed plant will require potable water in order to operate, according to Yeung. She assured attendees at the meeting that the water will not need to be replenished regularly and the system is not expected to require a large amount of water.

The potable water is required mainly for safety reasons, such as eyewash stations, said an employee from the Economic Development Corporation, and the water has to be free of impurities. An environmental review revealed that the amount of water required was too small to affect the water supply.

Employees of the Economic Development Corporation said the system will also use natural gas, chosen for its efficiency and availability, which they said is cleaner than diesel.

Yeung said that more sustainable sources of energy, such as battery or solar power, would not be able to power facilities of this size. “The goal here really is to provide backup power to these really, really large facilities,” she said.

The purpose of the project is to provide three days of power in the case of an outage, according to Jessica Colon from the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

The Resiliency project is also installing a grid that will use renewable energy at the Fish Market and solar panels and battery storage on the top of two Hunts Point schools, PS 48 and MS 424. The proposal also includes a program to use mobile diesel generators to provide backup power to local businesses in the case of an emergency.

The cold water from the plant at the produce market will be used to power 50 refrigerated trucks, reducing the diesel emissions from the trucks. The hot water produced by the plant will take the place of boilers in the meat market, reducing the use of gas to power those. The grid will be elevated and flood-proofed.

“You have to think of this as a suite of projects,” Colon said, “so overall we want to improve the resiliency of the neighborhood if there were a power outage.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Southern Bronx0 Comments

The Point is Bringing Resilient WiFi to Hunts Point

The Point, a non-profit mainly known for its arts and youth efforts in the Bronx, is now working on a high-tech project: bringing free and reliable WiFi to all of Hunts Point.

Working with New America’s Resilient Communities program, The Point is setting up a mesh network in 15 buildings in the neighborhood. It’s aiming to install the technology on the rooftops of local businesses.

The Point is currently acquiring equipment for this project, according to Houman Saberi, deputy director of Resilient Communities. They will begin installing the network next month. The project will be carried out in stages and will be completed by June 2019.

The goal is to provide reliable connection when other networks aren’t functioning, as in the case of an emergency.

“We’re kind of throwing a mesh around the whole community,” said Maria Torres, President and Chief Operating Officer for The Point.

“So this way as each thing connects to each other we get a wider, stronger signal.”

A mesh network is a wireless network made up of individual nodes placed throughout an area which communicate to each other without internet or wireless connection. The network still remains functional even if nodes go offline or lose connection, making it more resilient in the face of environmental disasters.

Hunts Point was selected for this project because it is especially vulnerable to climate change and flooding, as the neighborhood is surrounded by water on three sides. About a third of the neighborhood is at risk of flooding, according to New York City Planning. Facilities located near the water are at increased risk, making half of Hunts Point’s manufacturing facilities vulnerable, including the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center.

“Sandy was a very eye-opening experience for us,” said Angela Tovar, The Point’s Director for Community Development.

“And we realized that we had to dedicate a lot of our mission and our programming to ensuring that people were more resilient in the wake of climate change,” Tovar said.

Tovar said they’re also looking at ways for the community to take the initiative in improving their own resilience and infrastructure.

Digital Stewards, local residents trained and paid to set up the network, will carry out the project.

The Free Hunts Point Community WiFi project is modeled after a similar project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which installed a community mesh WiFi network prior to Hurricane Sandy. The network functioned as an effective back-up when many lines of communication were down during the hurricane.

The Point’s WiFi project received a $500,000 grant from the Citi Foundation earlier this year.

Hunts Point is one of five neighborhoods setting up community WiFi projects as part of New America’s Resilient Communities program, which includes East Harlem, Gowanus, Sheepshead Bay and Far Rockaway. New America has partnered with local organizations in each neighborhood to set up this project.

“What we want is transformational resiliency which is the the idea that communities can, through this project, through this knowledge, can really surmount some of these entrenched conditions, these inhibiting factors for community development,” Saberi said.

The Resilient Communities program receives funding from the RISE: NYC (Resiliency Innovations for a Stronger Economy) competition grant. The RISE grant is intended to help small businesses use innovation become more resilient against environmental disasters and was created after Sandy. RISE is organized by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and receives funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Point Community Development Corporation is a Hunts Point-based non-profit organization founded in 1994. The organization focuses on youth, arts and culture and community development. They are also working on bringing solar power to the community.

A study found that the Bronx has the lowest percentage of broadband connection in the city, with 32% of households not having internet connection.

Photo Credit: Savannah Jacobson

Posted in Community Resources, Featured, Southern Bronx0 Comments