MANHATTAN (CN) – Dozens of activists, some of whom label themselves the Friends of Fort Greene Park, packed a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday morning for oral arguments on the legality of a proposed renovation plan for the historic Brooklyn green space.
“I have a lap available,” shouted one activist as people squeezed together to make room.
The Friends accuse New York City of not being transparent about its planning process, unnecessarily cutting down trees, and skipping an environmental impact study. They’re seeking an injunction on the work until the city complies with the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA. New York Supreme Court Judge Julio Rodriguez III did not rule from the bench Tuesday.
Richard Lippes, the Sierra Club lawyer representing the Friends, called the proposed changes “a radical change of character of the park.”
As part of its Parks Without Borders project, the city plans to remove 83 trees from the park and make the northwest corner more accessible, with a new ramp and pavement job. It proposes removing mounds by landscape designer A.E. Bye and adding community grills and a splash fountain for children.
Lippes argued that the city misclassified the type of project it’s planning for the estimated $10.5 million renovation. The city says it consulted the neighborhood and will plant 200 replacement trees for the 83 it plans to chop, and denied that the proposed project violates SEQRA or requires an impact study.
“We’re addressing evolving needs of the community at the request of the community,” said Robert L. Martin, assistant corporation counsel for New York City.
Later, Lippes pointed out that none of that public input had been presented to the court as part of the record.
“Many of the trees that are being removed as a result of the project were invasive species, at the end of their life, or improperly spaced,” said Martin, a statement backed that afternoon in the park by Fort Greene Conservancy Executive Director Rosamond Fletcher.
Lippes disagreed in court.
“Many of these trees are being taken down…for design reasons,” he said. “There’s quite a difference between a mature shade tree and a new, small tree.”
Parks Department spokesperson Maeri Ferguson said in February that the department only planned to remove 52 trees for the redesign project, and that 14 of those were being removed for poor condition.
An additional 31 trees would be removed for “an unrelated, but adjacent drainage project,” she said.
During a tour of the park Tuesday, Fletcher characterized the changes as improving drainage, accessibility, maintenance and equity. The Conservancy supports the Parks Department’s plan.
“Our position is that we’re in this for the long-term health of the park,” Fletcher said, characterizing the changes as “needed upgrades.” Most of the changes are to increase the accessibility of the park, she said.
Fletcher said the new trees would be large enough to provide shade. She stood under one to demonstrate.
Georgette Poe, born and raised in the Walt Whitman Houses across the street from the park, sides with the Friends of Fort Greene Park. She criticized the city outside the courthouse Tuesday, saying the changes were to make the park more palatable to the wealthy and tourists.
“We’re communities, we’re not about this…concrete jungle,” she said. “How dare you come into our park and change it altogether?”
Ted Johnson, a private citizen who volunteers in the park and served on the conservancy from 2015 to 2018, said the plan is good.
“You’ll never have a perfect plan in New York City,” he said in a phone interview last month.
The north side of the park — which hosts two housing projects — has needed attention for a long time, he said.
“[The plan] corrects and satisfies a need for park equity,” Johnson said. He guesses the city was surprised by the pushback.
“They expected to say, ‘We’re fixing a park that’s 30 years overdue — people will be happy,’” Johnson said.
Now, he says, the city has to spend money to defend itself in court when it could be putting those funds toward the park.
“You’re trying to satisfy a 30-to-70-year wrong and you have somebody talking about trees,” Johnson said.
A man in the northwest corner of the park Tuesday, who identified himself only as Mr. T. and said he rides his bike there every day from the Farragut Houses, was wary of the proposed changes. He expressed concern about losing the nature he enjoys, and the possible effect construction might have on the playground.
“For them to want to tear it up, what’s that gonna do for me, as a citizen?” Mr. T. shouted over the portable speaker he’d brought to blast oldies.
The Parks Department did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.