Judge says police are ‘heavy handed’ on Park Row

By Josh Rogers

A state judge said the city appears to have closed down more streets than necessary to secure the area around police headquarters and has taken “a very, very heavy-handed approach” with people living nearby. The judge however also said he doesn’t think there is much he can do about it under the law.

“[The] city has [secured] a…greater area than apparently is necessary to provide security for One Police Plaza,” said State Supreme Court Justice Walter Tolub at a court hearing June 27. Residents of Chatham Green and Chatham Towers, and several local politicians have filed a lawsuit against the city to force officials to issue an environmental impact statement on the closing of Park Row and nearby streets to most vehicles. Judge Tolub, according to court transcripts, also told the city’s attorney that “you seem to have undertaken a rather massive approach to a security problem without any thought as to the impact on the community.”

Although sympathetic to the plaintiffs, Tolub told the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jack Lester, “I am not sure our environmental concerns are such that allow or permit this court to intervene with what’s going on. I think you got a political problem really, and I think if the administration were a little more sensitive to the needs of the community you might get a lot more cooperation.”

The judge is expected to rule on the case sometime within the next few weeks.

The city’s attorney, Janet Siegel, is arguing that the barriers around Police Plaza are technically “traffic control devices” and therefore are not subject to environmental review, although Tolub was skeptical of the argument.

“It’s not the equivalent of traffic devices,” the judge said. “It’s a barrier.”

The area has been closed to most vehicles since the Sept. 11 attack and Siegel said there were security dangers connected to allowing private vehicles near the police headquarters infrastructure.

“The streets are neither temporarily nor permanently closed to motor vehicles,” city attorneys wrote in a brief to the judge. “Rather drivers simply need to provide proof that they reside beyond the barrier or have an authorized purpose for entering.”

Under the police rules, Chatham residents are allowed to go past the checkpoints to the apartment driveway, although no private cars or city buses are allowed to continue down Park Row and under Police Plaza into the City Hall area.

Danny Chen, a Chatham Green resident and one of the plaintiffs, said the rules are not clear to the tenants. He said a few days after the court hearing, he came across one of his neighbors, an elderly woman who was waiting in vain for her car service to take her to a doctor’s appointment a few blocks away at N.Y.U. Downtown Hospital. Chen said it took him 10 minutes to drive the woman to the doctor. “Pre-9/11 it would have taken a minute,” said Chen.

Kenneth Eshak, the hospital’s interim president and C.E.O., said the city is endangering the lives of Downtown residents.

“Specifically, we believe that the closures and other obstacles imposed by New York City between the hospital and the neighborhood have lengthened the time… for emergency vehicles…to bring patients to our hospital,” Eshak wrote in a letter submitted to the judge. “Needless to say, this constitutes a tangible detriment to the health and safety of the affected New York citizens, residents and employees, and in specific cases, could be life threatening.”

Chen said not letting four of the city’s bus lines through Park Row is also a major inconvenience. He said at one meeting, police officials said since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority couldn’t guarantee the security of the buses, the police had no choice but to block buses from the street.

“Of course they can’t guarantee that the buses are safe,” said Chen. “That’s the N.Y.P.D.’s job.”

The effects of the bus closures have reverberations throughout Lower Manhattan. Last week, at a meeting of Community Board 1’s Battery Park City committee, one member said the changes to the M9 route means she no longer has a convenient way to get to the courts, Chinatown or the Lower East Side.

The city acknowledged in court papers that they have taken over mapped parkland at James Madison Plaza because the Police Dept. “suffers from a severe parking shortage in the vicinity of One Police Plaza.”

The city argues that it plans to move the cars at some point from Madison Plaza to the closed municipal parking garage nearby. The city emptied the lot in the summer of 2001 to build a 911 emergency calling center, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, the N.Y.P.D. nixed the calling center idea because officials did not want it to be so close to their headquarters.

Although city attorneys assert that the police plan to leave the plaza, Police Officer John Sullivan, a spokesperson for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, said July 7 that no such decision has been made. “The decision to do that hasn’t been made yet and when we do so, we will make a formal announcement,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview.

Iris Weinshall, the city’s Transportation commissioner, who reports to Mayor Bloomberg just as Kelly does, said last November that she had been trying for some time to get the police to move their cars into the municipal garage.

“We are working very hard with the police,” Weinshall said then. “We’re not there yet.”

The state Legislature must pass a law to allow a city agency to permanently take over parkland. Lester, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the city figured it could get away with the plaza takeover. “They just did it,” he said. They didn’t think anybody would bother to sue them,” he said.

The judge seemed most skeptical of Lester’s argument that the traffic changes have environmental effects, but Lester said once the judge reviews the case law, he is confident that the judge will at least require an E.I.S. The environmental statement will have to include measures to mitigate the traffic problems.

The city has not argued that there have been any specific threats to Police Plaza in recent years, but cite the 1982 bombing of police headquarters by the F.A.L.N. terrorist organization and say that the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City made officials aware of the need to add protections to government buildings.

Tolub, whose courthouse is right near Park Row, indicated he knew the neighborhood well during the proceedings. He also scolded the city for not doing more to satisfy the plaintiffs’ needs. “ ‘We were negotiating’ doesn’t carry with me,” he said. “I want to see some results.”


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