Tag Archives: Lawsuit

Warning: Are Parks and Open Spaces Up for Grabs? Are We Slowly Taking the Public Out of the Public Trust?

We’ve been working with the many groups and people opposed to NYU’s ridiculous, bloated and unneeded expansion plan for some time now. Our main client, NYUFASP, represents hundreds of professors and faculty within NYU who are also against the plan; this, in itself, speaks volumes about what an awful plan it is: one that will crush the Village and abolish some much needed green and open spaces with it.

There was a lawsuit filed in 2012 against the plan. One of the main aspects of the lawsuit was that the green spaces that would be bulldozed by the plan are public parks, and, therefore, under the tenets of the Public Trust Doctrine, cannot be simply “given away” for development. That doctrine, which dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, is a crucial part of America’s common law tradition. According to the Doctrine, the government holds the titles to certain waters and lands in trust for the people; this has evolved to extend protection to scenic resources, open space in general, energy generation, preservation of ecosystems and historical sites.

In New York State, if an entity wishes to develop or remove a parcel of parkland from public ownership and use, it must follow a legal process called “alienation,” which, among other conditions, requires approval from the state legislature.

This lawsuit wound its way through the court system and, ultimately, came before the state’s highest court, the NYS Court of Appeals. A few weeks ago, we found out that we’d lost the case.

Reading the Court’s decision left me wondering whether we had somehow travelled to the “doublespeak”-laden parallel universe of Orwell’s 1984. Although it’s true that some of the parks in question never “formally” became part of the Parks Department, at least a couple of them did, in fact, have parks department signage, were maintained by the Parks Department, and were listed on the Parks Department’s website. In addition, one of the parks was actually dedicated – about two decades ago – by the Parks Commissioner at that time, Henry Stern (who, by the way, gave our side an amicus brief detailing the fact that, yes, that’s really a park). This would mean that they were, quite obviously, implied parkland, and that they’d be protected under the Public Trust Doctrine. Not only would they be protected, but they couldn’t be given away for development unless approved by the state legislature. Even then, the developer would have to “give back” to the community the same amount of open space as was taken.

Importantly, the whole community has used those spaces as parks, some for decades. But, apparently, if it looks like a parks, acts like a park, and is used like a park it’s….not. Here’s just part of what the court said, “That a portion of the public may have believed that these parcels are permanent parkland does not warrant a contrary result.” This means that although the public (and, really, not just a part of the public, but ANYONE passing by these parks would think they’re parks) actually thought these were parks, it does not mean that they were/are. Huh? If the Public Trust Doctrine is there to protect public lands, including parks, and if the public has used those lands as parks, and believed them to be parks – for decades – how could they be declared NOT parks? This is a scary precedent.

In better news, however, the folks in Queens fighting the erection of a shopping mall in Willets Point, next to Citifield (home stadium of the Mets), successfully used the Public Trust Doctrine in a lawsuit to stop the mall. The land that developers wanted to build on is public land that was specifically slated to be used only for stadium purposes; clearly, a shopping mall is not consistent with that usage. The lower court ruled in favor of the petitioners – Willets Point shop owners, the City Club of New York and State Senator Tony Avella (D-Queens). “Today’s decision sends a message loud and clear — our parks are not for sale,” said State Senator Avella. You can read the full story here.

We wish that Senator Avella’s words were true. Apparently, in the rush toward unfettered development in this city, public lands are, indeed, in jeopardy, and the courts can’t be counted on to side with the public. What’s worse is that, although many elected officials sided with the public in both the NYU case and the Citifield/Willets Point case, the City of New York itself, in both instances, sided with the developers. In the NYU case, the City continued to oppose the public’s stance even when the suit went to the Court of Appeals. Now the question is whether or not the City will be part of the inevitable appeal that developers will file in the Citifield/Willets Point case.

Under the guise of “controlling” City owned property, the City is clearly attempting to violate the Public Trust Doctrine, and is taking away one of the few protections that the public has to save public spaces, parks, and waterways in a time of rampant development. To say that it’s disappointing is an understatement.

Meanwhile, more evidence has arisen that even when developers are ordered to keep their hands off public spaces, they don’t always comply.

In Monday, July 14th’s NY Times column, “The Appraisal,” journalist Matt Chaban uncovered how Donald Trump is now selling Trump wares in a part of his Trump Tower in Manhattan that is supposed to be a dedicated public space. Mr. Chaban explains that, as part of a deal to let developers build larger buildings back in 1961, the City required that a certain amount of the developed space be open to the public. If Trump is in violation of his deal, I wonder how many other developers have done the same. Advocates have tried for years, to get the Trump situation fixed, but clearly, there is no real enforcement against these kinds of encroachments onto public spaces. Trump was fined $2500 for the infringement back in 2008 (a trifling price for Trump), but no other action ensued. You can read Chaban’s excellent piece here.

What does this all mean? I think it’s clear that public spaces are increasingly up for grabs. This is especially true now, when developments – mostly for the wealthy – are overtaking just about every neighborhood in the City. It’s also obvious that the City is clearly disinterested in angering developers, since the City is hoping it can persuade developers to build more affordable housing. (And that’s a subject for another day…)

While, of course, all developments aren’t bad, this slow erosion of the Public Trust Doctrine – with the City’s hearty assent – coupled with little or no enforcement when developers fail to comply with public space agreements, potentially adds up to fewer parks, gardens, and green and open spaces for the people of New York City. In a city where developments are rising higher and higher, blocking out the sun and dwarfing other buildings, and where the ratio of open space to people is among the worst of America’s big cities – 4.6 acres per 1,000 residents (Trust for Public Land 2014 City Park Facts), we can ill afford to let this trend continue.

Have an Intern You’re Not Paying? It’s Wage Theft.

When our economy began to tank sometime around 2007, and jobs became more and more scarce, there appeared an incredible spate of “internships.” I use those quotation marks because these “internships” – for all kinds of jobs, in both the corporate and non-profit sectors – were unpaid. I know many people, especially young people in their 20s, who took these internships because there were so few other, paying jobs. Even though our economy is doing better, this practice of non-paying internships continues.

Unless the internship is truly that – a position that is more about education, and that doesn’t take the place of “real” work or a “real” worker – not paying interns is wage theft, pure and simple. It shocks me that companies and organizations – especially ones who deem themselves “progressive” – could engage in such a sickening practice.

As a small business owner myself, I completely understand all of the stresses that come along with a bad economy, and keeping good staff and being able to pay them properly is a big concern. But even when we were in an economic crunch, we never, ever, had unpaid interns. I believe if you can’t afford to pay someone at least minimum wage – which in NY is now $8.75/hr – don’t hire interns. Simple.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for unpaid internships, which provide a true learning experience for the intern.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

What seems to be happening is that we are turning the workplace into some kind of neo-feudalistic society (That’s a phrase coined in our office by Senior Account Executive Sonya Landau.). Or, if you prefer, a form of indentured servitude; not quite slavery, but sure feels close.

It’s gotten so bad, that there have been lawsuits filed by interns and a website, Intern Justice, that’s maintained to keep track of them all.

One notable case was brought by two Fox Searchlight interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, who worked on the movie “Black Swan.” According to the website ProPubica, the judge in that case, William H. Pauley III ruled in favor of the interns on June 11, 2013, arguing that, “the interns had essentially completed the work of paid employees – organizing filing cabinets, making photocopies, taking lunch orders, answering phones – and derived little educational benefit from the program, one of the criteria for unpaid internships under federal law. Pauley also ruled that the plaintiffs were employees and thus protected by minimum wage laws.” The case was so significant that it was also noted by the WageTheft website, which does, indeed, consider non-payment of interns, in most cases, to be wage theft.

ProPublica has also provided a run-down of the legalities involved in hiring interns in a piece titled, “When Is It OK to Not Pay an Intern?”

Bottom line: most of what passes for unpaid internships these days are, in fact, illegal wage thefts. If you are doing this, then you are a thief. Stop it.

Latest Client News – Week of January 27, 2014

In our latest news, NYUFASP joined local officials, community groups and John Leguizamo to discuss the next steps in the NYU expansion.

On Friday, January 24th – two weeks after Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills put a halt to NYU’s needlessly colossal expansion plan by ruling that the City illegally gave parkland to NYU for its development, elected officials, NYU faculty, Village area community organizations and other supporters – including actor John Leguizamo – held a press conference encouraging NYU to step back from its planned appeal and to “do the right thing” by going back to the drawing board and exploring alternatives.

Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and the Historic Districts Council generously hosted the press conference in its offices. A slew of elected officials, including a representative from Congressmember Jerrold Nadler’s office; Assemblymember Deborah Glick; State Senators Brad Hoylman, and Dan Squadron; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Corey Johnson, spoke. Each of them expressed the opinion that the judge’s ruling was beneficial to the Village community and provided a perfect opportunity for NYU to restart the planning phase from scratch. The well-know actor and Village resident John Leguizamo added his voice to the cause, emphasizing that NYU could make an expansion that respected the culture of the community while still gaining the educational space it needs.

The community groups that filed the lawsuit, include our own NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (NYUFASP), GVSHP and Lower Manhattan Neighbors Organization (LMNOP), as well as, Historic Districts Council, Washington Square Village Tenants’ Association, East Village Community Coalition, LaGuardia Corner Gardens, Inc., SoHo Alliance, Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, Friends of Petrosino Square, and NoHo Neighborhood Association.

LCG is proud to be working with these groups that are fighting to save the Village.