Up in arms: Legal Aid lawyers sue city over Bedford-Union Armory redevelopment plan

affordable housing
The Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

The battle over this military structure is heading to court.

A group of pro-bono legal eagles sued the city over its controversial scheme to redevelop the Bedford-Union Armory, filing suit in state Supreme Court the day before Council voted to approve the plan on Nov. 30.

Attorneys at the Legal Aid Society allege the DeBlasio Administration is clueless to the negative effects that the project’s massive amount of market-rate apartments will have on Crown Heights residents because of a flawed environmental-review process for the development and other building proposals city-wide.

“The city’s methodology not only puts Crown Heights tenants at risk, but others barely making rent in every borough,” said Judith Goldiner, the lead Legal Aid lawyer on the armory suit.

Hizzoner’s hotly contested proposal to lease the publicly owned military structure at 1579 Bedford Ave. to developer BFC Partners survived its months-long public-review process after the real-estate company and the city’s Economic Development Corporation agreed last month to axe 48 luxury condos from and include more affordable housing in the plan in order to win the approval of Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo (D–Crown Heights), which was key to its success.

But opponents of the scheme, which also calls for 149 market-rate units, argue that building those apartments on public land is unacceptable, and that the influx of wealthy occupants they will draw will push less-affluent residents out, according to the head of a tenants’ rights group that supports the suit.

“We joined this lawsuit because we are opposed to market-rate housing on public land,” said Katie Goldstein, who runs Tenants & Neighbors. “We believe that a market-rate project of this magnitude in this neighborhood will lead to displacement of both unregulated and regulated tenants.”

Legal Aid’s complaint alleges that a city rule requiring developers to study the effects of new housing on tenants who occupy market-rate apartments — but not rent-regulated units — is unfair, claiming that some residents who benefit from rent stabilization could be harassed by greedy landlords as area rents rise, according to Goldiner.

“Gentrification affects all apartments – regulated or unregulated — and the city’s land-use decisions need to factor in that reality,” she said.

For instance, a legal loophole allows landlords of stabilized buildings to entice tenants by charging a preferential rent that is less than the maximum legal rent they could collect in any given year, and then increase the rent — sometimes drastically — to the legal limit when renewing occupants’ leases, a practice that could occur more frequently as neighborhoods’ rents rise.

The lawsuit also claims that residents never received their legal right to publicly comment on and request changes to the manual by which city officials conduct a project’s environmental-review process, Goldiner said.

A state Supreme Court judge denied a restraining order Legal Aid’s attorneys sought to halt construction on the armory development, but allowed the case to move forward, according to the organization’s spokesman, who said a ruling is expected before the city officially awards the contract to BFC Partners in June.

And if the justice rules in Legal Aid’s favor, the decision could have wide-ranging effects on several ongoing developments and rezoning initiatives throughout the city, which would have to repeat environmental reviews and potentially alter existing schemes, Goldiner said.

“They would have to go back and make sure that in pending and future actions where they’ve done an environmental review that they study that issue,” the lawyer said.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.