Opponents of Governor Kathy Hochul’s plan to redevelop the Penn Station neighborhood sued the state alleging that the plan violated environmental laws and had been drawn up in an improper “de facto partnership” with the biggest private property owner in the area.
Eager to show Long Island and Westchester commuters that she can make Penn station a less miserable experience, Hochul, up for reelection next month, has been pressing forward over neighborhood objections with the plan to build ten skyscrapers around Penn Station and siphon some of the revenue to help fund the state’s share of renovating the station.
“No one questions that Penn Station – grim, squalid and dangerous – is in desperate need of an overhaul,” wrote Richard Emery, the attorney representing a coalition of local organizations and residents under the name Penn Community Defense Fund.
But the General Project Plan offered by the state, through its Empire State Development Corporation, was “slipshod,” Emery alleged, and primarily benefited the largest property holder in the area, Vornado Realty Trust, whose CEO, Steven Roth, has been a major contributor to Hochul and to her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, who originally promoted the plan.
“ESD has engaged Vornado as a de facto partner in the development of the GPP,” the lawsuit alleges, “in a manner inconsistent with the public interest and the development of a proper master plan for Penn Station.”
Freedom of Information Case
The suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, doesn’t detail the evidence for this alleged partnership, but officials familiar with the suit said the claim was based on emails being disclosed in a separate freedom of information case opponents have brought to force the Empire State Development Corporation to reveal documents about how the plan was created.
“The documents ESD has produced thus far establish the continuous involvement of Vornado in the project’s development,” said Charles Weinstock, the lawyer who brought the freedom of information claims and is a co-counsel in this new suit. “This was not governmental action; it was collusion between a state agency and the private company that would be the project’s primary beneficiary.”
In his separate suit to force ESD to disclose more information, Weinstock alleges that the documents show that:
“Vornado executives — including Barry Langer, the executive vice president — were on the permanent invitation list for the agency’s recurring “team” meetings. They peppered ESD with agendas for the meetings, attended “dry runs” of ESD presentations to outside groups, gave extensive notes on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (“DEIS”) and general architectural concepts, and shared the responsibility for political outreach.”
“ESD has dedicated itself to concealing how it arrived at this plan, and why it continues to defend it so zealously, despite its legal infirmities and overwhelming public opposition,” added Weinstock, in a separate suit he filed. “No one stands to gain more ... than Vornado. In fact, it is possible that Vornado will be the only developer to gain.”
Neither the Empire State Development Corporation nor Vornado Realty Trust responded to repeated requests for comment.
Article 78 Proceeding
“This governor’s plan is a disaster from an urban planning standpoint,” the Penn Community Defense Fund said in a statement. “It serves only a large campaign contributor. The public needs a balanced, viable and worthy solution to the long running mess at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue, not a throwback to the worst of the Robert Moses era.”
The lawsuit is what is known as an article 78 proceeding, referring to a section of state law that allows citizens to challenge the actions of a state agency.
The suit asks the court to toss out the whole plan. Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of the land use committee of Community Board 5, said this demand is consistent with the objections raised by the community board. Work by the community board to develop a new plan should reassure the court that the governor’s plan is not the only option, she said, although the community board is not a party to the suit.
The central challenge to the governor’s plan is that it violates state environmental law by failing to examine the environmental impact of the entire redevelopment project, including not only the demolitions and construction of new office towers, but also the reconstruction of Penn Station.
Segmenting the project and looking at the impact of only individual segments of the project in this manner is prohibited by state law, the suit argues.
The suit also alleges that the Empire State Development Corp exaggerated the “blighted” conditions in the area around Penn Station to justify their intervention under state law.
“The development sites are neither currently, nor in danger of becoming, a substandard or insanitary area, and are not impairing or arresting the sound growth and development of the city,” the suit states.
The Penn Community Defense Fund is a collation created to support the legal action and is composed of groups such as the City Club of New York and ReThinkNYC, which supports moving Madison Square Garden and rebuilding a modernized version of the original Pennsylvania Station.
Also joining the suit is the tenants association of 251 West 30th street, which would be demolished if the development project proceeds to an expansion of Penn Station to the south.
“Penn Station Area residents had no choice but to join this lawsuit against Empire State Development Corporation’s outdated, fatally flawed and big real estate special interest driven Penn Station General Project Plan,” said Eugene Sinigalliano, President of the 251 West 30th Street Residential Tenants Association. “It is clear their horrible plan is illegally segmented, has no direct control of Penn Station improvement or Expansion, and should not even be allowed under their enabling legislation as it is based on a bold face lie that the Penn neighborhood is blighted.”