The federal lawsuit was first launched in 2003 by the Business and Residents Alliance of East Harlem (BARA) against various defendants, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation (UMEZ), the New York Empowerment Zone and the project developers, TIAGO Holdings.
BARA had previously argued that demolition of the old Washburn Wire Factory, formerly located along the F.D.R. Drive, from 116th Street to 119th Street, violated Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which mandates that projects that receive federal expenditures and are eligible or listed on the National Register of Historic Places be reviewed by federal, state preservation offices and local citizens to determine whether the proposed shopping mall will have any impact on historic resources.
There is no jury panel present during a federal appeal; arguments by the attorneys were instead brought before a three judge panel. A strong case against the $200 million dollar, 1 million-square-foot retail shopping center and parking garage was made by attorney Kevin J. Farrelly, Esq., attorney for the plaintiffs, while the defendant agencies and developers were represented by a team of lawyers who argued against the requirements of Section 106. The judges, after hearing the oral arguments and having read all the legal briefs render a decision by late October or early November.
Lead plaintiffs in the case include a variety of East Harlem residents, homeowners, property owners and small business owners among them Raymond Plumey, AIA, a local architect, preservationist and city planner. “It’s too early to tell how the court’s decision will go,” said Plumey of the proceedings. “Our argument is that federal expenditures are being used without proper federal historic resource review and, as such, the process has been circumvented.” Other plaintiffs in the appeal are John Kozler, Irene Smith and Pascuale Palmieri. Other plaintiffs in the original federal district court claim included Gloria Quinines, Thomas Donovan and Charles Iulo.
Although the Washburn Wire Factory was demolished in 2002, Plumey explains why the argument still holds weight. “It doesn’t matter whether the building is still standing. Plus, there are other historic resources in the neighborhood that might also be negatively impacted. We have a number of other sensitive properties within a close proximity to this site . There’s the former Benjamin Franklin High School,, the Farenga Funeral Parlor on 116th Street, Thomas Jefferson Park and a former Con Edison building on First Avenue, which are listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s also an archeological site on 119th Street near the FDR Drive, considered a sensitive site by the City and State presevaion offices, that is the former fishing village of the Wecksquaesgek Indian Tribe.”
“My concern as a resident and businessperson is that we are losing our architectural and cultural history,” he added. “With proposed mega projects such as the Marriott Hotel and Uptown NY, both on 125th Street, East Harlem won’t be the same unless we repair and preserve our existing community. I’m not opposed to economic development in general, only to projects that are out of context and eradicate our neighborhood’s history. Developers in Soho and TriBeCa don’t eradicate the history of those neighborhoods, and the same respect should be accorded to our neighborhood.”
The former Washburn Wire Factory Factory had been vacant since 1982. In 1996, the Blumenfeld Development Group Ltd. (BDG) acquired the site for $3.1 million at a federal auction. BDG then sought backing from UMEZ and NYEZ with plans to develop it as East River Plaza, a shopping center with Costco and Home Depot serving as anchor tenants. In May 2004, BDG formed a partnership with Forest City Ratner Companies, developers of the controversial Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project, which will accommodate a new Nets Basketball stadium.
The East River Plaza project has already weathered a number of other lawsuits involving property owners forced to relinquish their land to make way for the mall. One of those displaced through “eminent domain” condemnation was William Minic, who for over 20 years ran a cabinetmaking shop on East 117th Street which was demolished in 2004 to accommodate the project’s planned 1,200 car parking garage.
Text from Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
“The head of any Federal agency having direct or indirect jurisdiction over a proposed Federal or federally assisted undertaking in any State and the head of any Federal department or independent agency having authority to license any undertaking shall, prior to the approval of the expenditure of any Federal funds on the undertaking or prior to the issuance of any license, as the case may be, take into account the effect of the undertaking on any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register. The head of any such Federal agency shall afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation established under Title II of this Act a reasonable opportunity to comment with regard to such undertaking.”