Friday, July 22, 2011

Harlem Playgrounds/Garden Stolen For Charter School - Lawsuit

St. Nicholas Houses
Ground was broken in April on a $100 million five-story Harlem Children's Zone charter school on the St. Nicholas Playground North site. A lawsuit filed yesterday in New York State Supreme Court alleges the taking the playground for a non-park purpose required New York State alienation approval and as a result is a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine which protects parkland. Press Release below. (Photo: DNAinfo)


Residents of the St. Nicholas Houses and state Sen. Bill Perkins filed a lawsuit Thursday to block the construction of a $100 million Harlem Children's Zone charter school in the middle of the public housing complex, according to DNAinfo.

The suit challenges the way the project was approved, said Sadia Rahman, an attorney for the Urban Justice Center who filed the action along with the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.

According to the suit, NYCHA should have sought permission from the city and the state Legislature before removing the parkland the school is being built upon. Some residents have opposed the project because they say the 135,000 square-foot-school imposes upon their quality of life by taking away open space.

"You just have a better quality of life when you can walk out your door sit on a bench and read a book or feed the squirrels," said Rahman.

The St. Nicholas Houses, located between West 127th and West 131st streets and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass boulevards, is part of a New York City Housing Authority superblock. Buildings, parks, playgrounds, parking lots and open space stand in areas that were once part of the city street grid.

"Families there use the space as part of their recreation and socializing, they have gardens and the kids play there. They are opposed very strongly to the taking of their open space and replacing it with a charter school," said Perkins, who has strongly opposed the charter school movement.

Construction of the school began in April. It will house 1,300 students in grades K through 12 and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2012. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to halt construction.

NYCHA declined to comment on pending litigation. The city and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are also named in the lawsuit.

Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone, said the benefits of the school outweigh the loss of open space.

"While we regret the loss of any green space in Harlem, we believe creating an unparalleled educational opportunity for the children of St. Nicholas Houses, as well as a year-round community center, more than balances the impact of losing some green space," Canada said.

President Obama has modeled his anti-poverty program "Promise Neighborhoods" after the program at Harlem Children's Zone.

Canada said that the approval process was "open" and "well within the law." The ultimate goal is to "break the cycle of poverty," he said.

The project has also addressed residents' concerns by replacing all the playgrounds, providing landscaping in other areas and easing the inconvenience of construction by providing "dozens" of residents with air conditioners.

Residents have said they are not against Canada's mission and that there are other locations where he could build a school.

"To say we are against education because we are against the school's location is like saying you have a problem with God because you have an issue with one church," said William Danzy, co-founder of Citizens for the Preservation of St. Nicholas Houses, and one of 92 residents who are plaintiffs in the suit.

"Harlem is more crowded now than ever before. To take this oasis away, this view, these trees and the seating capacity its a terrible situation," he added.

Perkins said the case is also about setting precedent. The project is part of a wave of city-driven efforts to carve up NYCHA superblock housing projects to installnew private projects. The school on the grounds of St. Nicholas Houses also represents the first time NYCHA has broken up one of its superblock housing complexes.

NYCHA also recently launched a partnership with Harlem RBI to build an $85 million charter school project that includes a park renovation, new headquarters for the group and 90 units of affordable rental housing on what is now a parking lot at Washington Houses in East Harlem.

"My concern is, now it's charters, but what's next," Perkins asked.

Rahman agreed. "If NYCHA can succeed here, the dominoes will start to fall and you will hear about other developments losing playgrounds and parking lots to private entities," she said.

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DNAinfo - July 21, 2011 - By Jeff Mays

NYC Stole Our Park
WPIX - July 21, 2011


Lawsuit Alleges That Valuable Park Wrongly Taken By NYC

NEW YORK- More than 100 residents of Harlem’s St. Nicholas Houses today joined in a lawsuit seeking to prevent the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), HUD and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) from allowing improper construction of a new charter school amid public housing at the St. Nicholas Houses. The lawsuit, filed by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center (UJC), and the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, two non-profit advocacy groups, argues that NYCHA’s recent $7 million sale of the public housing property to HCZ takes valuable and much needed park land used every day for generations by residents and the surrounding Central Harlem community.

“This isn’t ‘spare’ land, it’s land that residents of St. Nicholas Houses use every day and is part of our lives,” said Frances Hinton. “Like everybody else in New York we used this parkland to teach our kids to ride bikes, to play games, and to relax outside under beautiful mature trees when it’s hot. The park has been central our community for recreation for over 50 years. Now the City has bulldozed it to build a charter school.

“Park land in New York City is precious and if we take it we need to be absolutely sure it is good for the community— this is not,”; said Harvey Epstein, director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. “St. Nicholas residents expect and deserve to know that the City is on their side, but given this process, I don’t think we can say that. St. Nicholas residents and Harlem deserve better.”;

“The cutting down of 100 veteran shade providing trees, construction of a 5 story (75 foot building on 30,000 square feet) for 1,300 students, with its shadows, obstruction of sunlight, creation of a heat island, loss of 2 playgrounds and gardens, and passage of thousands of cars and buses through the once safe site is true danger for the thousands of the St. Nicholas residents (many of whom are elderly, children, and/or suffering from asthma and diabetes. The decimation of the one-mile walking circle created and financed by the City’s own Health Department’ Anti-Diabetes program and the obstruction of parent’s sightlines of their children playing in the Circle serves as sad and harmful indicators of the City’s disregard of the interests of St. Nicholas residents and of the Public Trust Doctrine,” said Joel Richard Kupferman, Executive Director of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project.

The land being used for the charter school is directly in the middle of the development, and lays on important parkland, known as the “Circle” for residents. Under the current plan, the school has destroyed:

More than 100 mature trees

Two children’s playgrounds

Three long lasting community gardens

The historic walkways and landscaping

An open playing field

Many Benches and game tables

Nesting grounds for migratory birds and black squirrels

HCZ originally said they would give priority to St. Nicholas children, but have since modified that promise and said preference will only be given to the kindergarten class of 2013-14.

The lawsuit filed today in New York State Supreme court alleges:

Taking parkland: The construction of a charter school within the St. Nicholas development is an “unlawful alienation of public trust parkland.”;

Flawed City and Federal Process: The lawsuit alleges that NYCHA received approval for the process from HUD and the City Planning Commission by submitting inaccurate and highly misleading information in order to obtain swift agency approval, including masking the residents’ overwhelming objection to the development plan and grossly inadequate and inaccurate environmental assessment forms.

Disturbing Peace: The demolition of the Circle at St. Nicholas is a breach of habitability for tenants

Failing to Comply with Land use Laws: NYCHA failed to comply with the requirements of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (“ULURP”). The lawsuit states that NYCHA should have been subject to ULURP because Harlem Children’s Zone eventually conveyed that land to another City agency, the Department of Education, and that this blatant attempt to evade ULURP review contravenes the law and public policy.

The St. Nicholas homes were built by NYCHA between 1950 and 1954, and are comprised of 13 14-story buildings. They are located between 127th and 131st streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Fredrick Douglass Boulevard.

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