Suit filed to prevent construction of Harlem Children’s Zone

By Adam Fusfeld | July 21, 2011 11:46PM

From left, Joel Kupferman, head attorney of the New York Environment Law and Justice Project, Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone and a rendering of the charter school planned for the St. Nicholas Houses

Two non-profit organizations filed a lawsuit today on behalf of residents of the
St. Nicholas Houses in Central Harlem to prevent the construction of the Harlem
Children’s Zone in the public housing complex, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

More than 100 residents joined the Urban Justice Center and the New York
Environmental Law and Justice Project in filing the suit against the New York City
Housing Authority, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and
the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The New York State Supreme Court suit argues that construction of the school
on West 129th Street would demolish park land that’s valuable to residents of the
public housing complex and bring thousands of cars and buses through a site that
once was home to trees, playgrounds and community gardens. The suit also alleges
construction would also destroy a one-mile walking path that was financed by the
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to encourage an active
lifestyle among the 3,389 residents of the complex, and their neighbors.

Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice
Project, said it was one of several “harmful indicators of the city’s disregard of the
interests of St. Nicholas residents and of the Public Trust Doctrine.”

The Harlem Children’s Zone, headquartered at 35 East 125th Street in Central Harlem, agreed to buy 3.11
acres of land at the center of the St. Nicholas Houses, most of which comprise a
park known to residents as the “circle,” from the Housing
Authority in 2010 for $7 million
, with intent to build a five-story charter school
on 30,000 square feet of land for 1,300 children. Ground broke on the $100 million school in
April. According to the lawsuit, Harlem Children’s Zone said it would give priority to children from
the housing project, between 127th and 131st streets and Adam Clayton Powell
Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass boulevards, but revised that to promise
preference only for the kindergarten class of 2014.

“This process was well within the law,” Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of
Harlem Children’s Zone said in a statement. “While we regret the loss of any green
space in Harlem, we believe that creating an unparalleled educational opportunity
as well as a year-round community center more than balances the impact of losing
some green space at St. Nicholas. We are replacing all the playgrounds that will be
lost and have given air conditioners to dozens of tenants to mitigate the temporary
inconvenience from the construction process.”

Opening arguments are scheduled to be presented before a New York State Supreme
Court judge tomorrow morning, Kupferman said.

NYCHA and HUD declined to comment.