Volume 17 • Issue 22 | October 22 - 28, 2004

Security plan neglected Chinatown’s safety, judge rules

By Josh Rogers

A state judge has ruled that the city illegally ignored the health safety of Chinatown residents when it closed Park Row for security reasons and has ordered the city to do a comprehensive environmental study to look at the street closure’s effects on ambulances and other traffic.

State Supreme Court Judge Walter Tolub, in an Oct. 15 decision, denied the request of Chinatown and Seaport residents who had asked him to order the street reopened. Park Row runs under police headquarters and is the main street connecting Chinatown with the Seaport and Civic Center area. The N.Y.P.D. has kept the street closed since Sept. 11, 2001.

The plaintiffs in the suit include residents of the Chatham housing complexes, Southbridge Towers and business owners. Judge Tolub removed the local politicians from the suit — U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Sen. Martin Connor and Councilmember Alan Gerson — ruling they did not have standing to sue since they were not claiming personal harm.

Tolub wrote that there were “gross oversights” in the city’s environmental assessment statement and that officials only studied a confined area right near the police checkpoints rather than examining how the traffic affected nearby streets. He said a “glaring omission” in the E.A.S. is that it ignores the fact that a health facility, NYU Downtown Hospital, is within a mile of the study area, a violation of a state environment law, often called SEQRA.

Hospital leaders submitted letters to the judge saying they were concerned ambulances would not be able to quickly pass police checkpoints to get in and out of Chatham Green and Chatham Towers. The judge wrote that it was even “more disconcerting” that the officials working on the environmental assessment never contacted the hospital. He ruled the city must complete an environmental impact statement within 90 days.

The city conducted the first study under a previous order by Tolub. City officials announced they would appeal the judge’s latest ruling.

In a prepared statement, the city’s attorney, Janet V. Siegel, assistant corporation counsel of the Environmental Law Division of the city Law Dept., said: “We disagree with the decision rendered last week by Justice Walter B. Tolub and intend to appeal immediately.  The environmental review of the 1 Police Plaza Security Plan was thorough and complied with all legal requirements.  These barriers are vital for the protection of the New York Police Department Headquarters and local residents, including adjacent buildings occupied by some of the petitioners.  Importantly, the Court denied the petitioners’ request to remove the barriers, because of these vital security needs.”

Prior to hearing the announcement of a pending appeal, Ken Kimerling, legal director for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs, said the ruling closely followed the law and he did not think Tolub would be reversed.

He said the E.I.S. will require the city to hold public hearing to discuss what will be studied and to come up with measures to lessen the traffic effects if it doesn’t agree to reopen the street.

“The judge is really telling the city: ‘Be serious,’ ” Kimerling said. “They weren’t the last time.”

Danny Chen, a Chatham Green resident and a plaintiff, said he looked forward to seeing the city defend the measures in hearings although he is disappointed the judge didn’t reopen the street. Up until now the city has gotten away with saying little about the street closure, Chen said.

“They feel their dominance,” Chen said. “They have the streets so they don’t have to say anything…. It’s obviously disappointing that [Judge Tolub] didn’t see fit to lower the barriers — at least the barriers around residential areas that still need emergency access.”

Judge Tolub wrote: “[T]he petitioners must concede the uniqueness of the location at issue. In addition to being adjacent to One Police Plaza, the central nerve of the New York City Police Department, the area in question also neighbors several residential complexes, two federal courthouses, one state courthouse (where this court sits), and two detention facilities, one of which held the defendants implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing.”

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a state-city agency which has been studying Chinatown, has suggested possibly reopening the section of Park Row that is closed for pedestrians. During a meeting with reporters last year, Kevin Rampe, L.M.D.C. president, said the corporation continued to press police brass to open the street.

“I think we are constantly putting pressure on them,” Rampe said then. “We’d like to see them reopen it.”


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