Fort Greene

‘Save our trees’ advocates have their day in court

They’re fighting the Parks Department’s plan to cut down 83 Fort Greene Park trees.

September 10, 2019 Lore Croghan
The Sierra Club and local residents are fighting the city Parks Department over the planned removal of 83 trees from Fort Greene Park. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The city Parks Department is legally required to do an environmental impact study before destroying dozens of mature, healthy trees in Fort Greene Park and changing park features designed by famous landscape architects, a lawyer for the Sierra Club told a Manhattan judge on Tuesday.

The removal of 83 trees and also floral gardens is part of a planned $10.5 million redesign of 33-acre Fort Greene Park under the De Blasio administration’s Parks Without Borders program.

The project, if carried out, would cause a “radical change of character in the park,” attorney Richard Lippes said in oral arguments before New York Supreme Court Justice Julio Rodriguez.

Lippes represents the Sierra Club, the Friends of Fort Greene Park, City Club of New York President Michael Gruen and several Fort Greene residents in an Article 78 case against the Parks Department. This type of proceeding is a lawsuit against government entities.

Lippes and Assistant Corporation Counsel Robert Martin, who represents the Parks Department, argued about whether the Fort Greene Park project is a Type I action or a Type II action under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act.

The Parks Department plans to remove grass mounds from Fort Greene Park, as this drawing shows. Rendering via the Landmarks Preservation Commission
The Parks Department plans to remove grass mounds from Fort Greene Park, as this drawing shows. Rendering via the Landmarks Preservation Commission

A Type I action is one that might cause significant adverse environmental impacts. An environmental impact study is legally required for this type of project. A Type II action involves routine maintenance and repair with no substantial changes. In a Type II action, no environmental impact study is needed.

The city’s redesign of Fort Greene Park calls for a plaza with 13,300 square feet of impermeable paving to replace grass mounds designed by artist A.E. Bye. The mounds, which are a children’s play area, stand beneath the granite stairs leading to the park’s famed Prison Ship Martyrs Monument.

Removing the mounds is a major alteration, Lippes argued.

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Also, the planned Fort Greene Park makeover would “significantly change” design work by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. “Olmsted is considered the father of landscape architecture,” Lippes said. Olmsted and Vaux also designed Central Park.

Because it calls for these big changes, the Fort Greene Park redesign is a Type I action, the lawyer said. Martin, the legal rep for the Parks Department, argued otherwise.

According to Martin, case law shows that various aspects of the project, such as an Americans With Disabilities-accessible ramp, are Type II actions. He continued that, instead of doing an environmental review, the Parks Department carried out “a robust planning process” to prepare for the Fort Greene Park redesign and incorporated suggestions from the public into it.

As a Parks Without Borders project, it is intended to make Fort Greene Park “more open, accessible and welcoming to the public,” Martin added.

Mature trees shouldn’t be removed from Fort Greene Park, the Sierra Club and neighboring residents contend. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Mature trees shouldn’t be removed from Fort Greene Park, the Sierra Club and neighboring residents contend. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

He said redesign work will be done on 7.86 acres of the park. An additional 2 acres will be fenced off to keep the public away from the construction site but will not be “disturbed” by workers.

The amount of acreage involved is an issue because according to the State Environmental Quality Review Act, if a project is more than 10 acres in size, it is a Type I action that requires an environmental impact review. Lippes, the Sierra Club’s lawyer, said the redesign covers 10.455 acres, which was calculated by translating pixels on a Parks Department map into acres.

According to Martin, the Parks Department’s landscape architect who created the map said it was “not precisely drawn.”

Martin also said that to make up for the 83 trees that will be cut down, 200 trees will be planted. “The Parks Department does not have a cavalier attitude towards the removal of these trees,” he said.

Lippes countered by saying there’s a difference between the mature shade trees that would be cut down and small trees that would be planted, which will take “years to grow.”

Lippes included a Parks Department flyer in his court filings that says, “A large, healthy tree removes almost 70 times more air pollution each year than a small, newly planted tree.”

Here are changes the Parks Department plans to make at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street. Rendering via the Landmarks Preservation Commission
Here are changes the Parks Department plans to make at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street. Rendering via the Landmarks Preservation Commission

A study Nancy Owens Studio did for the Parks Department recommends that the mounds designed by A.E. Byes be left intact, according to Lippes. And the report shows a “strong preference” for retaining the features of Calvert and Vaux’s design. Nowhere does it call for the removal of dozens of mature trees.

The petitioners, as the plaintiffs are called in an Article 78 case, received a heavily redacted copy of Nancy Owens Studio’s report from the Parks Department after requesting it through the state Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL.

The petitioners have since successfully sued the Parks Department to obtain the full, unredacted report.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Martin sought to minimize the importance of the report, for which the Parks Department paid $140,000. He said it was written in 2015 and had nothing to do with the actual Fort Greene Park project the agency plans to undertake.

The judge said he would not rule from the bench that morning, and ended the hearing.

Brooklyn residents chant “Save our trees” on the steps of New York Supreme Court. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Brooklyn residents chant “Save our trees” on the steps of New York Supreme Court. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The courtroom was packed with the Friends of Fort Greene Park’s supporters. Court officers sent people who couldn’t fit into the available seats out of the room before the hearing began. After it was over, members of Friends of Fort Greene Park and their supporters stood on the steps of the 80 Centre St. courthouse and chanted, “Save our trees! Save our trees!”

Lippes told told them Rodriguez would likely issue his judicial decision in a couple months.

The Parks Department’s plan to cut down 83 trees “shows the City of New York does not care about how they will affect people in black and brown communities,” one of the supporters, Georgette Poe, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Georgette Poe, who lives in the Walt Whitman Houses, opposes the removal of 83 mature trees from Fort Greene Park. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Georgette Poe, who lives in the Walt Whitman Houses, opposes the removal of 83 mature trees from Fort Greene Park. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

“They want to make Fort Greene Park look like Washington, D.C., with paving and a monument,” said Poe, who lives in the Walt Whitman Houses. “We’re Brooklyn. We need our shade.”

Fort Greene Park was created because of relentless campaigning in the 1840s by famous poet Walt Whitman, who was then the Eagle’s editor. The park opened in 1850.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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