A peaceful block in East Harlem, surrounded by two schools, two churches, a sports field that children use and a park – an oasis of relative calm in upper Manhattan – will soon be disturbed, residents fear. The New York City Sanitation Department plans to open a new garage for garbage trucks on East 127th Street between Second and Third Avenues.
The community, which fought the project for nine years and lost, still hasn’t come to terms with its soon-to-be new neighbor.
“I know they need somewhere to put the garage,” said Bruce Parker Jr., 28, while coaching the Harlem Jets youth football team in a recent game at the Harlem River Park Athletic Field, opposite the garage site. “But, right in front of a public park with kids playing is just a slap in the face.”
City officials say that no garbage will be brought to the new facility, just the trucks that haul and dump the trash elsewhere. But, community leaders complain that the vehicles will carry remnants of trash, attracting vermin and worsening traffic congestion and air quality. “We have kids with asthma,” Parker said.
The new site, at 207 E. 127th St., will replace the Manhattan 11 garage on East 99th Street. That garage is structurally unsound and too small to house its equipment, forcing the sanitation department to park trucks on the streets, according to the land use application. The resulting traffic congestion and air pollution for nearby residents and Metropolitan Hospital prompted the garage’s re-location.
In a letter to then-Sanitation Commissioner Thomas J. Doherty in 2013, the community board argued that the new site would create the same problems, since it shares the block with an elementary school and two public parks. “We request that you work with the community to come up with more creative alternatives,” the board members wrote.
Nine years, two more letters and numerous community board meetings later, the new garage now stands almost ready for operation. “No matter what we say, it’s already done,” said Jamel Wright, 53, chief executive officer of the Harlem Jets.
Jessica Elliott, chair of the environment, open spaces and parks committee for Community Board 11 in East Harlem, argues that the neighborhood is oversaturated with sanitation facilities. It also hosts a garage for Manhattan District 10, the Manhattan Cleaning Lot and various parking lots.
The lot on East 123rd Street is taking up land that the city promised to consider for affordable housing. The District 10 garage on East 131st Street is not fully functional, so workers park trucks beneath the nearby Metropolitan Transportation Authority tracks instead. “We have to smell that foul stuff,” said Derrick Taitt, 60, president of the non-profit Community Association of East Harlem Triangle.
In 2017, the city agreed to explore options for an enclosed, state of the art, environmentally advanced, consolidated facility to house garages for Districts 9, 10 and 11. A similar facility opened in 2015 at Spring Street for Districts 1, 2 and 5.
Five years later, the new garage will serve District 11 vehicles only, with brick walls to screen trucks from the street and sidewalks.
Among its opponents at a City Planning Commission hearing in 2017 were then-Deputy Borough President Diane Collier, a former community board chair, and neighborhood residents. The Harlem Neighborhood Block Association gathered 226 signatures on an online petition opposing the garage.
The proposal passed, however. Then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the decision to relocate was driven by the health and environmental impact of the old garage on its surrounding community. The new location, she explained, was in a less populated industrial area.
But adjacent to the new site is The King’s Academy, a private school for about 30 students, and the True Church of God. The United Moravian Church sits behind the garage and across the street is P.S. 030 Hernandez/Hughes.
“You’re putting a sanitation garage behind a school and a church,” said Shawn Streipdt, 47, the principal at King’s Academy. “It’s ridiculous.”
Although the trucks will unload their garbage at the East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station, Streipdt said he is concerned that residual waste will attract cockroaches and rats.
Jeremy House, a spokesman for the sanitation department, said that he is confident that the trucks will have no residual waste as they are washed each night.
To evaluate predicted effects on noise, air pollution and traffic, the sanitation department conducted an environmental assessment for the new garage in 2016 and found that the project would have no adverse effects on the community.
The evaluation, however, for traffic conditions was based on data from 2014. State data in 2018 showed that daily vehicle volume at East 128th Street and Third Avenue had increased 49% since 2011. “It’s a traffic hell,” Streipdt said. When the garage opens, 27 more trucks will join the traffic flow.
Mark-Viverito, the former City Council Speaker from East Harlem, said building a permanent consolidated facility would have taken too long. The lack of updates on that front, she said, proved her point.
Regarding the schools and parks near the new garage, Mark-Viverito said that the site at East 99th Street is even more densely populated. “This is New York City, we are a dense city with many needs,” she wrote in a text message. “I felt then as I feel now, after having taken into account diverse points of views in my decision making, that this is a huge win-win for the community.”
The sanitation department also stressed in an email that the new garage was needed because the old one is “a danger to all involved and needs immediate action.” House pointed out that when the consolidated facility was built at Spring Street, the community was largely opposed to it as well. “Now everyone wants a facility like that,” he said. “Let us build. Let us show you what good neighbors we are.”
Diana Ayala, City Council member for East Harlem, expressed similar sentiments. She said conversations continue with the sanitation department and community members about an eventual consolidated facility for District 11 and 10. The new garage is a temporary move in this “multi-step process.”
“It’s a process and we’re inching towards it,” she said. “But I’m not concerned that it’s not going to happen.”
The sanitation department, however, said in an email that there is currently no funding for such a project and no consensus on a location.
About the author(s)
Rachel Lim is an M.S student at Columbia University, covering social issues in New York City.