Taking Parks to the bench: Ft. Greeners file suit to stall their meadow’s makeover after officials’ tree untruths

Building a new Fort: Community board approves Ft. Greene Park makeover after months of debate
NYC Parks

They’re leaf-ing it in a judge’s hands.

A group of Fort Greeners is taking the Department of Parks and Recreation to court after officials fibbed about the health of dozens of trees they want to chop down in Fort Greene Park to make way for their controversial makeover of a swath of the green space.

“We found so much misinformation coming from the Parks Department,” said Sandy Reiburn, a member of anti-redesign group Friends of Fort Greene Park, which filed the lawsuit last month. “It is basically cutting down healthy trees for the purpose of a redesign — what other funny business is going on?”

Last year, agency leaders claimed the trees in question wouldn’t survive for much longer while trying to gain support for their plan to refashion a corner of the meadow near Myrtle Avenue and Saint Edwards Street, prompting Reiburn and a fellow friend of the park to request a report by city-hired arborists on the status of the plants — which the locals said showed the trees were perfectly healthy after they received the study via a Freedom of Information Law request.

And after uncovering that untruth, the friends of the park began to wonder what the agency withheld from another redesign-related report on the park’s history and current condition, which arrived heavily redacted after the group submitted another foil request for that document, according to their lawyer.

“Nothing makes anyone more curious than being told that you can’t see something,” said Michael Gruen. “It’s a good report, very thorough and objective — I’m talking what we can see of it — and it is hard to imagine on what basis they removed large sections.”

Gruen on April 20 submitted an Article 78 appeal — a legal motion that challenges decisions made by city or state agencies — to a Supreme Court judge in Manhattan, demanding officials fork over the entire contents of the redacted report that landscape architects prepared in 2015 as the Parks Department planned the makeover of Fort Greene Park, which calls for axing the mostly healthy trees and leveling some decades-old hilly mounds in order to install an open pedestrian plaza leading from the street to the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument.

The judge will decide whether the agency must fork over the full study in the next few weeks, according to Gruen, who said the ruling will determine whether the friends of the park will proceed with a more robust lawsuit to stop the redesign in its tracks.

“Right now we have a case that can be decided quite quickly,” he said. “I hope that will tell us more, and if it’s necessary to do a suit over the actual project.”

And even if the current court case can’t upend the entire $10.5-million makeover — which is set to begin next year after being okayed by both the local community board and Landmarks Preservation Commission — its outcome could still lead Parks Department officials to reconsider axing the healthy trees, according to Reiburn.

“Maybe this will slow them down to come up with a reasonable compromise where the trees remain viable,” she said.

Earlier this month, another New York State court ruled in favor of journalists’ Article 78 suit against the city, granting them access to Mayor DeBlasio’s e-mails with a bigwig at a powerful consulting firm after the reporters argued the documents were necessary to determine what, if any, influence the man held over Hizzoner’s decisions while in office.

A Parks Department spokeswoman declined requests for comment, citing a policy not to discuss pending litigation.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.

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