East Bronx residents slap city with lawsuit over Bruckner Boulevard rezoning

photo of the Super Foodtown at the intersection of Crosby Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard
The Super Foodtown on Bruckner Boulevard is one of four sites slated for redevelopment. Local opponents of the plans filed a lawsuit this month looking to overturn the zoning.
Photo Aliya Schneider

Resistance against the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning has continued past its approval, with local residents filing a lawsuit against the city this month.

Buffalo-based environmental lawyer Richard Lippes is representing the Bronx Coalition Against Up Zoning Inc., an organization led by John Cerini, a 52-year-old accountant and insurance agent in Throggs Neck who was born and raised in the neighborhood. In the suit against New York City, the Department of City Planning and the City Council, Lippes argues that the city’s planning department did not properly conduct the necessary environmental review for the rezoning project. The lawsuit, which calls for the zoning to be invalidated, cites Article 78, a measure that allows for challenges of agency decisions.

The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 13 in Bronx Supreme Court and the city has not yet responded.

The rezoning was approved unanimously by the City Council in October 2022 with Mayor Eric Adams’ support after local Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez reversed her stance on the project. The plan is supposed to bring 348 units across four sites on Bruckner Boulevard with 192 designated as affordable, including 99 units for seniors and 25 for veterans. While the project area is adjacent to the Bruckner Expressway, it falls in a low density growth management area where residents against the proposal have clung to their suburban zoning.

“I want the community to know this is not over yet,” Cerini told the Bronx Times. “Because a lot of people have given up hope, and we want them to know this challenge is still on, the fight is still alive.”

Cerini started a GoFundMe to fundraise in September 2021, which has since raised $46,487 across 432 donors, to crowdfund the legal effort. That month, he set a goal of $30,000, and the initiative garnered $25,000 by December 2021, at which point organizers said they retained Lippes. Unsure of how much the lawsuit will cost overall, Cerini is continuing to fundraise, with a $100,000 goal listed on GoFundMe.

“I still don’t feel like we raised enough because I feel like this fight is going to go on,” he said.

John Cerini reading off of a paper in the City Council chambers in front of a microphone
John Cerini testifies against the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning in the City Council chambers on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. Photo Aliya Schneider

During the approval process for the rezoning, the NYC Department of City Planning found in March 2022, and again in August 2022, that the project would not have any significant adverse environmental effects. Therefore, an environmental impact statement would not be required.

But in the lawsuit, Lippes argues that the department ignored or put off issues that would have adverse impacts on the environment, thus requiring the impact statement, an additional step in the application process.

He said the traffic data that helped inform the city’s decision was collected from Nov. 7-18, 2020, at which point traffic levels would have been significantly lower than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, the noise levels measured should also be disregarded, according to the lawsuit.

Locals against the project have shared concerns with the Bronx Times about congestion in the area from Senator John D. Calandra School (PS14) next door to the project site, as well as the nearby St. Benedict School. School was in session during the traffic study, but COVID-19 transmission was increasing, with the NYC Department of Education announcing on the final day of the study that school buildings would close the following day with students switching to remote learning.

Lippes argues that the 3-8 story buildings planned for the site “will destroy the street scape” in the neighborhood, which largely consists of 1-2 story homes.

He also asserts that shadows covering 90% of Miele Park, which provides 0.39 of an acre of greenspace beside PS14, would have a notable negative impact on anyone looking for sunshine in the park.

City Planning determined that shadows from the building would be cast on open spaces at the St. Raymond Cemetery, Miele Park and the Hutchinson River Parkway, but that they would not be cast on walking paths in the cemetery and the shadows elsewhere would be limited and not impact plants needing sunlight.

Carol Brumley-McManus wears a shirt with a red shirt wthat has an x over the word Upzoning and the website StopUpzoning.com next to the Super Foodtown on Bruckner Boulevard
Carol Brumley-McManus wears a shirt with the website for the Coalition Against Up Zoning Inc. at one of the Bruckner rezoning project sites on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2022. Photo Aliya Schneider

The lawyer also contends in the suit that there are indications of hazardous substances on the development sites and instead of determining whether the substances will have negative environmental effects before approving the application, the City Planning Commission improperly deferred the decision.

The City Council referred the Bronx Times to the NYC Law Department for comment, and the law department declined to comment. City Planning did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2019, Lippes represented Brooklyn residents in a lawsuit against the city Parks Department using a similar argument to this case. He claimed that the department avoided doing an environmental impact statement by misclassifying a Fort Greene Park redevelopment project as not having significant environmental impacts. He successfully stalled the project, with a judge directing the department to provide evidence that the project won’t impose a significant impact on the park and surrounding neighborhood.

Lippes, who teaches environmental law at the University of Buffalo Law School, told the Bronx Times that he wouldn’t take on the Bruckner suit if he didn’t think it had a good chance at succeeding.

Cerini said regardless of what happens with the suit, his organization will continue to fight developers who try to bring higher density apartment buildings to the area.

“This challenge doesn’t end with Bruckner,” he said. “It’s going to continue to be a virus that hits our community year after year, so our intention is to continue to fight any developer that wants to build buildings throughout this community.”

While housing advocates and unions advocated for the project, almost 5,000 people signed a petition online against it. Cerini said about 5,000 more residents signed a physical petition through the local homeowner’s association and through a feature on his organization’s website, though he was not able to provide the latter signatures by time of publication.

Sam Goldstein, a spokesperson for the rezoning applicant, declined to comment.

Reach Aliya Schneider at aschneider@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes