A waste landmark in the Bronx Recycling: When the construction of a paper mill is completed in 2000, it will be the first of its kind in a U.S. inner city. The developer is an environmental-advocacy group, its designer an artist.

Sun Journal

March 30, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- For nearly 30 years, drivers on the Bronx side of the Triborough Bridge have gazed at the monuments of Manhattan, their view unimpeded by the abandoned rail yard on either side of them.

But smack in the middle of that rail yard, the southernmost point of the South Bronx, construction is scheduled to begin this year on an audacious, first-of-its-kind building that promises to be a New York landmark.

This new monument is a paper-recycling mill unlike any other.

The lead developer is one of the nation's best known environmental-advocacy groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council. And its designer is artist Maya Lin, the noted creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her design includes 30-foot-high windows to allow passing motorists to look into the plant and see wastepaper transformed into newsprint.

When it is completed in 2000, the Bronx Community Paper Company will be not only the first mill of its kind to locate in an American inner city, but also the largest new industrial development in New York City since World War II.

"This is something that people touring New York two years from now will come to the Bronx and visit," says Aureo Cardona, a longtime South Bronx resident who has been active in rallying community support. "And as a recycler, it's a perfect landmark for our borough, because we have plenty of things that need recycling."

The $390 million plant, which will take paper from landfills and turn it into newsprint used by four of New York's dailies, is being pointed to as a symbol of the economic resurgence of the South Bronx -- which itself has long been a symbol of America's urban decline. The neighborhood lost 100,000 housing units, and hundreds of businesses, to arson during the 1970s. Ronald Reagan said in 1980 that he had "not seen anything that looked like this since London after the Blitz."

The attention, while unwelcome, helped. The Bronx has received more than $2 billion in city and federal subsidies over the past 10 years, and the result has been the construction or rehabilitation of 30,000 residences.

Low rents, easier transportation routes and newly safe streets have attracted an influx of manufacturers fleeing Manhattan, and retailers have followed the new workers. The paper mill is expected to provide 450 permanent jobs and another 2,000 positions during construction.

"You see a lot of light manufacturers and importers coming in," says Lesley K. Eysler, who moved her business, Regal Jewelry, from Manhattan to the South Bronx three months ago. "The resurgence here is beginning to grow roots."

At the same time, the Bronx Community Paper Company is an example of just how high the risks to inner-city industrial development remain. Experts say that paper companies, which prefer rural areas, are reluctant to take on the costs and politics of doing business in cities.

The idea for the paper mill originated seven years ago with Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. His organization had been suing paper mills because of pollution. "But," says Hershkowitz, "we also wanted to show that environmentalists can do more than oppose -- we can support projects we like."

Hershkowitz's vision required familiar figures in development fights to play out of position. In 1992, the National Resources Defense Council recruited Banana Kelly, a nonprofit South Bronx housing group that has opposed other industrial projects, as its development partner in the Bronx Community Paper Company.

Together, the developers held 120 community meetings and lined up $320 million in state loans to help finance construction. They thought such moves would shield them from criticism.

They were wrong.

The scale of the plant intimidates both neighbors and potential investors. The mill will use 1.2 billion gallons of water from a nearby sewage-treatment plant to recycle 280,000 metric tons of wastepaper -- a quarter of New York's output -- into 220,000 metric tons of newsprint each year.

A local community group, complaining that the plant's truck traffic would foul the air and that the rail yard should be preserved for future use by railroads, delayed the project for years with a suit that was eventually dismissed by an appellate court.

And some private investors have argued that the construction costs are too high and that existing newsprint plants are having trouble finding customers.

"Right now, from a profit standpoint it looks like a harebrained scheme," says Roger Bognar, publisher of Tissue News, an industry newsletter in Connecticut.

The plant's backers acknowledge the hurdles, but say they have already made progress. The publishers of the New York Times, the New York Post and the Spanish-language daily El Diario have all expressed interest in purchasing the plant's newsprint. And, after a six-year search, the developers signed a contract with a Canadian paper company, Kruger, which will operate the plant.

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