One neighbor with a lot of determination is standing between the city’s School Construction Authority and a bulldozer at the site of the demolished Visitation Church where it wants to build a school.
Dr. Christina Carlson lives around the corner from the now vacant lot and has been against the SCA’s handling of the lot since the beginning of the process.
Construction was set to start at the end of 2023, but now there could be no school on the grounds thanks to a successful lawsuit in Supreme Court in the Bronx won by Carlson and two other neighbors. They filed a suit against the SCA stating the environmental assessment they completed was improper. In July a judge ruled in Carlson’s favor but she didn’t learn about the judge’s ruling until September because she was not notified by the Acting Justice of the Supreme Court Leticia Ramirez.
The court designated the project as a “Type 1,” defined as an action “that an agency determines may have a significant adverse impact on the environment.” Type 1 designations must affect an excess of 25 percent of the threshold, meaning if the project is in an area with a population of more than 150,000 or a facility more than 240,000 square feet, which would mean a facility taking up 60,000 feet. This determination is drawn from the project’s location in the Bronx where the population requirement is easily exceeded and the plot of land is roughly 103,654 square feet.
Their ruling stated, “it is well settled that the operative word ‘may’ sets a low threshold for requiring an EIS.” Their reference to the use of the word ‘may’ refers to the following quote from state law. “All agencies shall prepare, or cause to be prepared by contract or otherwise an environmental impact statement on any action they propose or approve which may have a significant effect on the environment.” The use of the word may in this section of the law is loose and undefined, which provided the SCA the grounds for their omission of a proper impact statement.
The SCA’s “designation of the project as an ‘unlisted’ action, and resulting negative declaration, was without a rational basis, is an error of law, arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and is the product of a violation of a lawful procedure,” was the court’s determination on the actions of the SCA in not conducting an EIS.
The SCA gave themselves a negative declaration based on their environmental assessment which concluded that they were not going to significantly impact the environment.
The school was set to house more than 700 students. On the same plot of land Tishman Speyer was developing an apartment building but no ground has been broken as of yet.
“My problem isn’t with the type of building,” Carlson said. “My problem is with the size. I do not think that the size of either project that is being proposed is responsible.”
Carlson also points out that although the school and apartment building would be on the same lot, the proposed Tishman Speyer building mostly consists of studio or one-bedroom apartments. Carlson argues that families with children can hardly move into small apartments. The structure of the building doesn’t support the community or the infrastructure they are attempting to build.
The lawsuit was filed per Article 78, which challenges action or inaction by state agencies. In this case, the defendants have accused the SCA of not performing their environmental impact statements as per the State Environmental Quality Review Act and the City Environmental Quality Review Act.
In the SCA’s official duties, it is stated they are to lead the charge in implementing the environmental review process as written in the environmental conservation law.
The SCA’s website states they conduct “a review of the potential environmental impacts of the project is proposes to undertake, and where appropriate, prepares Environmental Impact Statements.”
Environmental impact statements must include a description of the project, the short-term and long-term environmental impacts, adverse effects of the projects, alternatives, irreversible effects on resources, mitigation measures, how the project offers growth, effects on energy resources, effects on waste management, management plan for groundwater protection areas, and any other important findings.
These differ from environmental assessment forms in that they help inform the decision to move forward with an environmental impact statement and whether a public hearing should be held on the proposed action. After performing such an assessment agencies must choose a negative, conditioned negative, or positive declaration based on how they’ve determined the environment will be impacted.
According to a study conducted by the President’s Council on Environmental Quality in 2020, the process of completing an environmental impact assessment takes on average four and a half years.
Since the decision, the SCA has filed an appeal. In response, Carlson filed a request for an extension in order to ensure she is prepared for when the SCA goes to court. Carlson’s request was granted. The SCA and Carlson are anticipated to be back in court in April.
Carlson wants the SCA to “do something really innovative that’s going to benefit the kids, benefit the park, benefit the neighborhood.”