By Josh Rogers
A state judge ruled Monday that the police have illegally acted like an “occupation” force by taking over a public plaza in Chinatown and ordered the police to vacate the plaza by the end of the year. In addition, the city has been ordered to complete an environmental study of the effects of the police closure of Park Row by the end of the year.
“I was shocked when I heard the news,” said Paul Lee, a small business owner and one of the plaintiffs. “I had all these plans, but none of them were predicated on us winning. I was saying if we lose we can do plan B or C or D.”
He said the decision by Judge Walter Tolub Aug. 4 gives hope in the neighborhood that “the little Davids running around” can beat Goliath, a.k.a. the N.Y.P.D.
Tolub signaled his displeasure with the city at a hearing several weeks ago when he said the police had taken a “heavy-handed” approach in its dealings with Chinatown residents and expressed skepticism that it was necessary to close such a large area around One Police Plaza, in the aftermath of 9/11. But Tolub also said he was not sure there was much he could do under the law.
On Monday, he ruled that the city must remove personal police and other vehicles from James Madison Plaza by the end of the year and that the city must complete an environmental assessment of the effects of the Park Row closure in 90 days. The purpose of the study will be to determine whether a more stringent environmental impact statement is required to continue the closure. The judge also ordered the barriers blocking the streets to remain up during the closure as a precautionary measure. He repeatedly called the takeover of the plaza an “occupation” in his ruling.
Inga Van Eysden, the city’s senior counsel in the environmental law division of the city’s Law Department, released this prepared statement: “We are pleased that the Court recognized the need to put in place security measures, including street barriers, to protect One Police Plaza from potential terrorist attacks. We are in the process of reviewing those parts of the Court’s order concerning the environmental review of the impacts, if any, of the street barriers, and the Police Department’s use of James Madison Park.”
Jack Lester, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said if Tolub had ruled that the barriers had to come down immediately, the city would have been entitled to an automatic stay and that would have delayed any movement for at least six months. Lester said the city now must study the traffic and environmental issues seriously and won’t be able to act like “dictators” as he felt the police had been doing in settlement negotiations. In order to continue the closure, the city will have to propose mitigation measures under an E.I.S., Lester said.
If the city does not take the first steps to conduct the environmental study within the next few weeks, Lester said he would be back in court. He predicted the city would have little success if they choose to appeal Tolub’s decision.
Another plaintiff, Danny Chen, a member of the board of directors at Chatham Green, said the police “have treated us with utter contempt. They disregard us totally.”
Officials with NYU Downtown Hospital told Judge Tolub that the barriers posed a health risk to Chatham residents because they could delay ambulances.
Residents of Chatham Green and Chatham Towers, who have had to show identification to pass checkpoints to get back into their homes, filed the suit earlier this year. The suit was joined by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Borough President C. Virginia Fields and Councilmember Alan Gerson.
Gerson, who rallied with residents last week, praised this week’s court decision. “It’s a major victory,” he said. “It sends a signal that the city can’t run roughshod over the basic rights of the community.”
The police had said they would vacate the plaza as soon as the nearby Municipal Garage was ready for police vehicles, but Tolub pointed out that the police ordered the garage closed before the terror attacks in order to make way for a 911 calling center and had begun demolition. After the attack, the police decided against building a calling center so close to police headquarters.
“Given that [police officials] control the means to end its occupation, the N.Y.P.D.’s use of the plaza appears to be more ‘convenient’ than ‘temporary,’ ” Tolub wrote.
Lee put it more bluntly at last week’s rally. “For some reason they can’t fight Al Qaeda without free parking,” he said.