Residents demand answers from city on embattled Fort Greene Park revamp

Fort Greene Park
The corner of Fort Greene Park at Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street where the city wants to create a grand paved entrance to the park while felling dozens of mature trees.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

 A group of residents that has twice sued the city for a controversial makeover of Fort Greene Park are seeking answers about the future of the greenspace as officials keep mum despite seemingly moving forward with the embattled scheme.

“We were left in the dark about all of this,” said Ling Hsu, a member of Friends of Fort Greene, a group of locals opposed to the redesign. “Apparently the project is still ongoing, they’re updating the project status, so someone is still in charge.”

A state Supreme Court judge in January issued a temporary restraining order on the Parks Department’s $10.5 million redesign of the lawn at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street, after Hsu’s group joined with a pair of environmentalist and preservationist organizations to sue the city last year, claiming officials tried to bypass a state environmental review.

Hsu and her fellow eagle-eyed locals discovered that the agency recently adjusted the proposal’s timeline, scheduling the completion of the procurement process for November 2020 — meaning officials will contract out and register the work with Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office by that time.

That would pave the way for a 12-18 month construction process, and the city’s apparent moves to plough ahead stunned the activists.

“We were just shocked when they adjusted the procurement completion date to November 2020,” Hsu said. “It just shows that the Parks Commissioner [Mitchell Silver] is forcing through this unpopular and legally questionable proposal of his.”

State Supreme Supreme Court Judge Julio Rodriguez III on Jan. 9 said Parks honchos needed to better prove that their proposal didn’t have significant impacts on the local environment before proceeding. City lawyers filed a notice to appeal the decision Feb. 13 before withdrawing the petition in July 28, according to court documents.

Justice Rodriguez’s decision came as a result of an April 2019 lawsuit by Friends of Fort Greene Park — along with the environmentalist advocacy group the Sierra Club and the preservationist organization City Club of New York — which claimed the city was trying to sidestep the State Environmental Quality Review Act for their plans by classifying the project to redesign almost eight acres of the park as routine maintenance and accessibility upgrades.

The agency’s designs called for the elimination of 83 trees — 52 to make way for a grand paved plaza at the Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street corner of the park, and another 31 to accommodate a redesign of the area near Myrtle Avenue and Washington Park.

The city’s plans call for a grand paved plaza at the Myrtle Avenue-St. Edwards Street corner of Fort Greene Park.Parks Department

The upgrades also include an expanded adult fitness area, a new basketball court, and tentative plans to replace the old sidewalk at St. Edwards Street. The judge specifically noted in his decision that the Department failed to explain why those aspects were only minor maintenance and repairs.

Friends of Fort Greene Park has been opposed to the project since the city proposed it in 2017, because the plans involve felling dozens of trees and paving over some 13,300-square-foot of greenery, including a group of grassy mounds, to build a new plaza at the northwestern corner of the park.

The head of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy — a non-profit dedicated to maintaining the park which supports the redesign — said that the plans would allow for so-called “understory gardens” to take the trees’s place, which would consist of younger trees, shrubs, and ferns that help prevent erosion and provide a better habitat for Brooklyn’s birds and bugs.

Conservancy executive director Rosamond Fletcher did not respond to requests for comment. 

A lawyer for Friends of Fort Greene Park said last week that officials need to address the judge’s order before they can proceed. 

“They have to produce a piece of paper [saying] why they believe that they’re not subject to SEQR,” said Michael Gruen. “All of this the court said must be addressed and the court isn’t going to guess how Parks comes out on it, it’s up to the Parks Department to think it through and express it in an intelligent way.”

Friends of Fort Greene Park and Gruen in August launched a blitz of document requests from city and state agencies about the project, but they have yet to get any files, according to Hsu. 

The residents group previously successfully sued the agency, when a judge ruled that the Department had lied about the health of dozens of the trees to advance their plan, and another local opponent of the plan worried that the agency was again looking to override their concerns.

“It just goes to show you the lengths they’re willing to go through while being untruthful,” said Monique Cumberbatch a resident of the Kingsview Homes cooperative housing complex adjacent to the park.

When asked about the future of the project and the November procurement date, a Parks spokeswoman declined to provide more information.

“There are no updates to share at this time. We look forward to sharing with community when ready,” said Anessa Hodgson in a statement.