Disputed Renovation Plan for Fort Greene Park Put on Hold

MANHATTAN (CN) — Over six dozen trees in a Brooklyn park will survive another day after a New York court paused a renovation effort that drew objections from locals. 

“Well, we’re very pleased,” said Enid Braun, a resident who took the city to court with the Friends of Fort Greene Park. “We’re hoping that this will result in more transparency and repairs and improvements that the community supports.” 

Judge Julio Rodriguez III granted the challengers a restraining order in Manhattan Supreme Court, flagging the city’s classification of the proposed work to Fort Greene Park as minor changes that wouldn’t require an environmental impact study.

“Although the determination indicates that around 267 replacement trees are planned for the park … it does not provide any explanation as to its reasoning in determining that neither the destruction of apparently healthy trees nor the addition of trees throughout the Park has the potential for an adverse impact,” the 14-page decision states.

The ruling became public Thursday but is dated Dec. 23.

A view of Brooklyn high-rises from the southern part of Fort Greene Park. (AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

As part of the project Parks Without Borders, the city had planned to remove 83 trees from the park and make the northwest corner more accessible with a new ramp and pavement job. It proposed removing mounds by landscape designer A.E. Bye and adding community grills and a splash fountain for children. Rodriguez’s ruling tosses the matter back to the Parks Department “for revised review and determination.”

City officials pushed back on the decision Monday.

“The court has delayed important park enhancements such as improved accessibility and other benefits that were supported by the community,” Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the law department.

“We disagree with this ruling,” Paolucci added. “The city followed the law and the approvals needed for this type of project. An environmental review was not required. We are reviewing the city’s legal options to continue this important initiative.”

The scrappy grassroots Friends of Fort Greene Park received early pro bono support from attorney Michael Gruen, president of the City Club of New York, which promotes thoughtful urban land use policy. The Friends accused the city of an opaque planning process, unnecessarily cutting down trees and skipping an environmental impact study. 

Gruen, who served as a legal adviser for the plaintiffs and represented them in previous suits, lauded the ruling in a statement released to the press Sunday.  

“This decision should awaken the [Parks] Department to reality,” he said. “Environmental regulation is not enacted to be evaded as if it were merely an annoyance. It is designed to ensure serious and honest evaluation of environmental risks from the inception of governmental consideration of any project.”

Ling Hsu, another petitioner and president of the Friends of Fort Greene Park, maintained that the community remains eager to work with the Parks Department on a redesign that works for everybody. 

“The group started as a community effort to gather our input and to help the Parks Department deliver real benefits to the community,” Hsu said. “We really didn’t expect it to become two lawsuits in a row, and to be honest we didn’t expect to win two Article 78 lawsuits.”

Braun expressed a similar sentiment, responding to the notion that the litigation had slowed down what everyone agrees are much-needed updates to the northwest side of the park.

“If they had been open and genuinely wanting to hear what the community wanted, it wouldn’t have been an obstacle, it would have been a collaboration,” she said, referring to the city.

Both Hsu and Braun expressed gratitude that Gruen had joined their case, highlighting that many communities with a cause can’t afford an attorney. Hsu said this is why it’s crucial for the Parks Department to be proactive about community involvement.

“Right now the Parks Department keeps saying they have done unprecedented community outreach in Fort Greene, but there’s a difference between outreach and taking in the feedback, and I think there’s a disconnection,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they are learning or listening.” 

Environmental attorney Richard Lippes, who represented the plaintiffs at oral arguments in September, praised the decision in a statement shared with the press Sunday. 

“This lawsuit will help to ensure that the historic nature of the park will be preserved,” he said. 

Activists had packed the courtroom at September oral arguments to hear Lippes object to the proposed changes.

While it’s not clear where the city will go from here, Hsu hopes any future changes to the park are more collaborative. 

“We are here, so they are welcome to come in and work with us,” she said.

%d bloggers like this: