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Bedford-Union Armory project in Crown Heights faces lawsuit from Legal Aid Society

The Bedford-Union Armory redevelopment project is facing a lawsuit from the Legal Aid Society, the organization said on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. / Bedford Courts LLC

The embattled Bedford-Union Armory redevelopment proposal has found a challenger in the Legal Aid Society, which filed a lawsuit against the city on Wednesday.

The lawsuit argues that the city didn’t use accurate methodology to measure how many people would be displaced by the project because it didn’t include the indirect impact on rent-regulated tenants in the neighborhood. The City of New York, City Council, and Bedford Courts were named as the suit’s respondents.

The project, which needs City Council approval, includes turning the decommissioned armory in Crown Heights into an apartment complex with 414 units, 250 of which would be affordable housing. Spearheaded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation and undertaken by Brooklyn-based private developer BFC Partners, the project’s blueprints include a recreation center and an office space.

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The city used an Environmental Quality Review Technical Manual, which the Legal Aid Society deems not comprehensive, to determine the impact on the community. The manual includes only the impact on unregulated tenants, whose rents can tangibly rise because of a large redevelopment in the neighborhood, the organization said. The lawsuit asserts also that tenants whose rents are regulated are equally at risk of being displaced.

Lyris Ming, one of the plaintiffs in the case, has lived in a rent-regulated apartment around the corner from the armory for 45 years. She said the city’s communication with the community about the redevelopment has not been adequate, so she has a skeptical approach toward the entire project.

Ming said she has been fighting for apartment repairs in city courts for two years, after new management took over her building and started ignoring tenant complaints.

“I had water leaks, problems with ceiling cracks and recurring mold. We deserve proper service,” Ming said following a news conference announcing the lawsuit at City Hall on Wednesday. “I think they are trying to push us out. Some of the tenants get fed up and leave. Then the landlords change the apartment. They increase the rent. The new tenants come in and they pay $2,500 and over.”

Katie Goldstein, spokeswoman for lawsuit plaintiff Tenants and Neighbors, said landlords will often harass rent-regulated tenants with inadequate service, such as lack of heat and hot water, so that they’ll move out.

“Our on-the-ground experience is that market-rate development increases real estate speculation and practices of harassing landlords,” Goldstein said. “Rent-regulated tenants are regularly harassed by their landlord because landlords can receive a 20 percent or more rent increase, that we call the ‘eviction bonus,’ if the tenant leaves the apartment.”

The building’s management company, Cobblestone Management, Inc., denied it was making repairs to Ming’s building as a ploy to get tenants to leave.

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“We make our best efforts to address every request made by our tenants. We have been actively working on making repairs throughout all apartments and common areas of the building,” Cobblestone said in an emailed statement. “We deny the allegation that we harass tenants or attempt to drive them out of their apartments.”

Every time good news about the armory redevelopment starts circulating in the media, Esteban Giron, a member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, said investors and people who want to buy his building start showing up to talk with his landlord.

Giron, who said he had come upon Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo’s involvement in the project believes she is acting in bad faith by supporting it. “She’s acting against the wishes of every person in the community who doesn’t have a vested financial interest in the project,” he said.

Cumbo, whose district includes the armory, had argued against the EDC’s initial plan to sell part of the public armory land to BFC Partners for the construction of 56 condominiums. The proposal was revised after intense scrutiny from housing advocates and some elected officials.

The controversial redevelopment is going to a full vote in the City Council on Thursday, one week after Cumbo negotiated the newly redrawn proposal to drop the partial land sale and include more affordable housing, which helped move the proposal past two council committees.

“I am proud to have secured 250 units of low-income housing, including 10 percent set aside for families transitioning from homeless shelters, low-cost space for local nonprofits, a world-class recreation facility, a brand new medical facility for the uninsured, more than 700 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs following the completion of the Bedford Union Armory,” Cumbo said in an emailed statement. “We are prepared to see this project through.”

District Leader Geoffrey Davis (D-43rd District) lauded Cumbo’s efforts to improve the armory redevelopment, and her success in eliminating condominiums from the plan.

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“To say not to bring it to the community is not thinking about the young people and their future,” he added.

If approved, the project will include a recreational center that will bring community activities, art and educational opportunities to the neighborhood’s youth, Davis said. The center will offer neighborhood residents $10 monthly memberships, according to Cumbo.

“By the time the recreational center is built, though, there are not going to be enough people left in the neighborhood to benefit from it,” Giron countered.

Giron and Tenants and Neighbors want the project to include 100 percent affordable housing.

Despite the opposition, the EDC maintains that the inclusion of the recreational center and affordable housing in the redevelopment will be a “win-win for the neighborhood,” according to Ryan Birchmeier, spokesman for the organization. 

“We have proudly worked with Council Member Cumbo to deliver an equitable project that will create a world class rec center for kids and families in this community, 250 affordable apartments, and space for nonprofits in Crown Heights,” Birchmeier said in response to the lawsuit.

The Legal Aid Society’s lawsuit had sought a temporary restraining order on the project, but it was denied Wednesday evening, according to the EDC. A City Council spokeswoman confirmed the vote will go on as planned.

“This preposterous attempt to block tomorrow’s vote does nothing except seek to hurt the very Crown Heights residents most in need of new affordable housing and jobs,” Robin Levine said in an emailed statement.

The City of New York, City Council, and Bedford Courts have until Jan. 10 to filed paperwork in response to the lawsuit.