Empowering Communities for Land Access: Paula Segal, Executive Director and Legal Director of 596 Acres

Paula Segal, founder, Executive Director & Legal Director at 596 Acres. Photo credit: Lauren Silberman.

Paula Segal, founder, Executive Director & Legal Director at 596 Acres. Photo credit: Lauren Silberman.

Paula Segal is the founder, Executive Director, and Legal Director of 596 Acres, a non-profit community land access program in New York City that supports and advocates the transformation of vacant public land into sustainable community institutions. The name 596 Acres refers to the amount of vacant land in Brooklyn as represented by the Department of City Planning when the organization began in 2010. Ms. Segal is a graduate of City University of New York Law School, where she was a Haywood Burns Fellow in Human and Civil Rights.  She is a partner at Mohen & Segal, a law firm that provides legal services for entities working on shared sustainable economies.

From Grassroots to Technological Enablement

The story behind 596 Acres begins with an initiative to rescue a vacant lot on Myrtle and Kent Avenues in Brooklyn. The vacant lot is a Water Tunnel 3 Shaft 21B site located at 636 Myrtle Avenue and owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Water Tunnel Number 3 is one of the largest public works projects in New York City history, which when completed will span more than 60 miles to reservoirs in upstate New York and deliver 1.3 billion gallons of water daily to the City. The $6 billion tunnel was authorized in 1954 and construction began in 1970. Shaft 21B was locked in 1988 and will not be utilized until the tunnel is completed in 2020.

Ms. Segal, then a resident of North Bedford-Stuyvesant, started Myrtle Village Green, a coalition of neighbors, in her living room to transform the underutilized and inaccessible Shaft 21B site for interim use as a community-run garden and passive recreation space. The interim use proposed by Myrtle Village Green included a space for community composting, raised garden beds for growing flowers and greens, a demonstration modular portable container garden, a rainwater catchment system, a locked toolbox, border beds for tulips and paperwhites, and benches and tables for community use.

In the midst of this campaign, Ms. Segal became aware of the Department of City Planning’s Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output (PLUTO) dataset for Brooklyn, which contained detailed information about every piece of land in the City, including tax assessments, historic districts, year built, number of units, and lot size. She realized that this was key information for people thinking about different ways to access vacant land. Ms. Segal initially circulated spreadsheets with PLUTO data divided by City Council district, but discovered that “nobody read those.” Thinking about alternative ways to aggregate and disseminate PLUTO data on vacant municipal land, Ms. Segal partnered with a visual artist to make a poster for the Ideas City festival. The poster was visually pleasing and helped people better contextualize the potential in the data. Ms. Segal met Eric Brelsford, a computer programmer and mapping expert, through the Ideas City festival, and together they created a website to house data on City-owned vacant land. He is now the lead software developer and data analyst at 596 Acres.

As the mapping platform was being developed, Ms. Segal and Mr. Brelsford took recycled Styrofoam pieces from Build It Greene and created signs for Shaft 21B, as well as eleven other parcels of vacant City-owned land. The signs contained information on how local residents could turn vacant lots into community gardens or farms. 596 Acres successfully helped local groups for eight of the initial lots get agreements from the City.  A license agreement was successfully executed by the DEP and the Pratt Area Community Council for Shaft 21B on July 20, 2012.

596 Acre’s online database updates and improves City data on City owned vacant land. Ms. Segal found that the City’s PLUTO data was inaccurate, despite being a starting point for gathering data.  Ms. Segal states “there is a lot of land that should be included in PLUTO that is not there, including parking lots that no one parks on and parks that were never built,” as well as “land that should not be included, such as every single community garden on public land in the Borough of Brooklyn.” 596 Acres provides a public service for communities by providing more accurate, contextual, and visual data through an intensive process of data collection and processing.

596 Acres collects and distills data from the Local Law 48 of 2011 Report and the Integrated Property Information System databases, both published by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.  596 Acres then uses a database of community gardens to exclude community gardens from their data. 596 Acres then processes and refines the data by examining each lot individually, and removes or indexes lots that are in use, a gutterspace, or inaccessible from the street.

596 Acre’s online platform became a simpler way to connect local communities with information about particular pieces of land by publishing their database as a map and allowing the public to comment on lots, adding more accurate information, history, or updates on specific lots.   The platform also provides information about municipal decision makers and local coalitions. 596 Acres also advises local residents and community coalitions on how to work with the City to transform vacant municipal land into community use.

Building Bridges in New York City and Beyond

596 Acres encourages the formation of neighborhood coalitions. “Every project that we’ve worked on has resulted in a new neighborhood coalition, whether it is a coalition of existing organizations or coalition of neighbors,” Ms. Segal states. 596 Acres is currently working with a local coalition based in a mosque on Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street in Brooklyn, which is attempting to relocate Small Green Patch, a community garden located on 348 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, that was closing down. 596 Acres hopes to facilitate the moving of the existing garden to a new location by “building a bridge between two different neighborhoods in two different social contexts” and “creating a network of local advocates with common goals.”

In addition to the work 596 Acres does locally, they also partner with organizations and coalitions in other cities, such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, to create online tools that will link public data on land with other helpful information.

By: Jennifer Baek (Jennifer is a CityLaw Fellow and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2013)

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