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Crown Heights tenants sue city, developer in effort to stop Bedford-Union Armory project

“The standard set for displacement is completely false and not at all adequate”

The Bedford-Union Armory building in 2016.
JV Santore/Flickr

Crown Heights residents joined the Legal Aid Society on the steps of City Hall Wednesday to announce a lawsuit they hope will stall a controversial redevelopment plan for the long-empty Bedford-Union Armory. The move comes a day before the City Council is expected to finalize the project, which would bring 400 apartments to the site—60 percent below market rate—as well as a recreation center, office space for nonprofits, and a medical facility.

City Council member Laurie Cumbo announced modifications to the plan last week, adding set-asides for homeless families and sloughing off 60 luxury condominiums. But critics, including the Crown Heights Tenant Union and New York Communities For Change, say the project is still poised to accelerate gentrification in an already fragile neighborhood.

These groups support the lawsuit, which argues that City Hall failed to make an accurate assessment of how the project could impact displacement in Crown Heights by arbitrarily excluding rent regulated tenants from its environmental review. An Environmental Impact Statement is legally mandated for any large-scale development project subject to City approval.

“We know that in reality tenants in rent-regulated buildings are not immune from displacement or gentrification,” says Jennifer Levy, supervising attorney For the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society. “We’ve seen it happen. The city’s procedures should reflect what we see.”

Ariel view of Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights
A rendering of the redeveloped Bedford-Union Armory.
BFC Partners

Even though the rents in regulated apartments are legally protected against large increases, the lawsuit argues, tenant harassment is rampant. Landlords see the market heating up, and have more incentive to force regulated tenants out with a litany of tactics, from offering buyouts to ignoring requests for repairs and bombarding holdout tenants with disruptive construction. In 2016, according to the Rent Guidelines Board, 7,524 apartments were deregulated citywide.

There are an estimated 12,703 rent-regulated apartments in the armory’s zip code, according to the Legal Aid Society. They argue that since many rent-regulated tenants are low income, including them in the city’s assessment would give a much more accurate picture of how many Crown Heights residents are at risk of displacement.

Plaintiff Lyris Ming, 53, has lived in Crown Heights for more than 40 years, in a regulated apartment near the armory on Eastern Parkway. She says she’s struggled to get basic repairs in her apartment, which has sustained severe water damage. Meanwhile, her neighbors are taking buyouts and new tenants are moving in; according to Ming, the renovated apartments are carved into multi-bedroom units and rent for in excess of $2,500/month.

“We’re against the wall now,” she says. “Our backs are totally against the wall. I’ve been here since I was eight years old and I’ve seen a total change [in the neighborhood]. And it’s not for the better. I am very worried about being forced out.”

Attorneys also hope the lawsuit, filed against the City of New York, City Council, and armory developer BFC Partners (which declined to comment for this piece), will force the council to change how it evaluates major redevelopment projects. They say the standard Environmental Quality Review Manual has never been presented to the public for comment, in violation of city law.

In the short term, the Legal Aid Society’s temporary restraining order to delay Thursday’s vote was denied Wednesday in Brooklyn Supreme Court. "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,” says Council spokeswoman Robin Levine.

The Legal Aid Society still plans to argue for a hold on the redevelopment until a more thorough environmental assessment has been conducted. Today’s ruling “has nothing to do with the city's flawed methodology that we look forward to arguing against in February,” says Legal Aid Society spokesman Redmond Haskins. A spokesperson for the City Law Department told Curbed it would “review the complaint and respond accordingly.”

The New York City Economic Development Corporation, which has worked closely with BFC, did not comment on the lawsuit specifically but stood by the project as a whole. “We have proudly worked with Council Member Cumbo to deliver an equitable project,” said spokesman Ryan Birchmeier.

“It’s amazing to me that the City Council … can sit in a hearing and sort of wink away the fact that they know that the standard set for displacement is completely false and not at all adequate,” says Esteban Girón, an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union.

“Displacement is measured by the number of people who are gone now from my block, from the surrounding blocks,” he added. “People who are being pushed out.”

Bedford-Union Armory

1579 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 1225