City’s plan to remove trees from Fort Greene Park hits a snag
Activists won a new round in their legal fight against a city project that would remove dozens of mature, healthy trees from Fort Greene Park and destroy park features designed by famous landscape artists.
New York Supreme Court Justice Julio Rodriguez issued a ruling on Thursday, Jan. 9 in a case brought by the Sierra Club, the Friends of Fort Greene Park, City Club of New York President Michael Gruen and several Fort Greene residents challenging a $10.5 million city project to rebuild the north side of the park.
The judge ordered the Parks Department to better explain its reasoning for categorizing a project — which includes removing 83 trees and paving over grass and Belgian stonework to create a 13,300-square-foot plaza — as routine maintenance. Parks’ categorization allows the agency to sidestep required due diligence.
“It is heartening to see that Justice Rodriguez recognizes that the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation failed to adequately assess the implications of its design decision when choosing to move forward with a plan to alter and renew Fort Greene Park,” Kate Bartholomew, chairperson of the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.
The Fort Greene Park project is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio administration’s Parks Without Borders program, which aims to improve the accessibility of city-owned green spaces for people with limited mobility.
Opponents objected to the city’s plan to uproot 83 mature trees and replace mounds made of Belgian blocks and grass-covered earth designed by landscape architect A.E. Bye. The Parks department aimed to create in their place a plaza made of 13,300 square feet of impermeable paving. The plan would also remove part of a retaining wall designed by architect Gilmore Clarke.
In September, Rodriguez heard oral arguments in the case from Assistant Corporation Counsel Robert Martin, who represented the Parks Department, and environmental attorney Richard Lippes, who represented the Sierra Club and its co-petitioners.
The city disagrees with the judge’s ruling, a spokesperson for the city Law Department said in a statement.
“The court has delayed important park enhancements such as improved accessibility and other benefits that were supported by the surrounding community,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
Friends of Fort Greene Park President Ling Hsu said in a statement that the group agrees with the city that repairs are needed on the north side of the park. Bathrooms, grills, drainage and workout equipment should be upgraded, she said. An access ramp should be added. The stairs need repair. The basketball court, walkways and sidewalks outside the park should be repaved.
The Parks Department should focus on these maintenance issues instead of carrying out its big redesign project, said Hsu. She believes the ruling should serve as a wakeup call to the agency.
“The Parks Department fell short in its responsibilities to be transparent and accountable throughout its Parks Without Borders design process,” Hsu said. “The ruling is a reminder to the Parks Department to resume its role as a steward of greenery for the community at historic Fort Greene Park.”
This legal victory is the second one activists have won against the Fort Greene Park redesign project.
Last year, Friends of Fort Greene Park won an appeals court case concerning a report about potential ways to improve the park by landscape architecture firm Nancy Owens Studio. The Parks Department was forced to release the full, unredacted report. It recommended that as many trees as possible should be retained in Fort Greene Park and the mounds by A.E. Bye should not be demolished.
In last week’s Sierra Club case decision, Rodriguez ruled on a narrow issue. He did not decide whether the Parks Department’s redesign of Fort Greene Park is legal and appropriate.
Instead, he focused on the Parks Department’s assertion that the Fort Greene Park redesign project did not require an in-depth environmental impact study because the project was characterized by the agency as routine maintenance and repair with no substantial changes. This is called a Type II action under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act.
A Type I action, which might cause significant environmental harm, requires an environmental impact study. Such a study would be a more rigorous analysis of the project, that describes the potential impact to the area and identifies alternatives to the proposed plan.
In his ruling, Rodriguez said that a letter the Parks Department wrote designating the Fort Greene Park redesign as a smaller project “is inadequate under the prevailing legal standard” because the letter does not spell out the reasoning that led the agency to conclude that the project entails Type II work.
The letter is deficient because it doesn’t explain why the Parks Department considers the project’s expansion of Fort Greene Park’s adult fitness area, the reconstruction of its barbecue area and possible sidewalk reconstruction on the St. Edwards Street side of the park to be minor repairs, Rodriguez noted.
Also, “the determination indicates that 32 of the trees are diseased but does not explain why the other 51 trees must be removed,” Rodriguez wrote.
And though the letter says that about 267 replacement trees will be planted in Fort Greene 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 judge said in his ruling.
The final reason the letter is deficient is that “there is no real explanation as to why [the Parks Department] concluded there is no possibility of any negative aesthetic and cultural impacts or of negative impacts to the neighborhood character,” the judge wrote.
Rodriguez ordered the Parks Department to revise its review of whether the Fort Greene Park redesign plan is a Type II action. He did not rule on whether the Type II designation was improper.
Fort Greene Park, which is landmarked, opened in 1850 following an advocacy campaign by famed poet Walt Whitman while he was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The public green space was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who are best known for their design of Central Park.
Fort Greene Park’s most iconic feature is the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, which distinguished architectural firm McKim, Mead and White designed. It’s a 149-foot, Doric-style granite column with a 20-foot-tall urn.
The monument stands above a crypt with the remains of Colonial Americans who died during the Revolutionary War while incarcerated aboard British ships anchored in nearby Wallabout Bay.
In December, artist Eva Oosterlaken displayed a movable exhibition in Fort Greene Park that incorporated quotes from neighborhood residents expressing their opinions about how the park should and shouldn’t be changed.
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