Real-estate developers are just itching to rezone Gowanus and reap the financial rewards, but we question the wisdom of doing so right now. The current limitations to large in-person gatherings and public engagement due to the pandemic substantially undermine the key process by which the public holds power accountable during land-use reviews.
In the face of pressure from those who would benefit directly, the City of New York now plans to restart the paused Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in September, with preliminary presentations in August. If approved, the proposed Gowanus action would be the largest rezoning under the de Blasio administration, and any action that would dilute the public’s right to know and to participate could have far-reaching consequences. We understand proponents’ eagerness, but it is critical for the public to have a fair chance to weigh in meaningfully in a standardized manner on changes that will dramatically affect their lives, health, property, livelihoods, and neighborhoods. That’s essential. In fact, that was the entire reason ULURP was instituted three decades ago.
At its best, ULURP provides little meaningful room at the table for the community. Given the realities of our times, we must ask: how can an already inadequate process that does not currently allow safe, in-person, large-scale community meetings at every step of the process across seven months be fair and sufficient under the law? It can’t.
Certainly, the review procedures would not be uniform when considered alongside other city-led rezonings to date. Proceeding with virtual meetings where attendees cannot even see who else is in the meeting prevents the public from engaging in the actions that provide them with their only power in the process. As such, it would be neither fair nor legally sufficient. To be able to coordinate, cheer, clap and even boo from time to time is an essential part of the process – and that can only happen at a large, in-person meeting, the kind where it’s possible to hold signs or wear clothing sporting advocacy messages. Gowanus residents have the same right to meaningful civic engagement as other neighborhoods that were rezoned.
Virtual meetings are inadequate given what’s at stake in this ULURP. City officials, as we’ve seen, have total power to mute an attendee in a virtual meeting – cutting off another one of the classic avenues open to a citizen attending a public meeting: the ability to finish your point after an official has cut you off. This matters in Gowanus, where public meetings, especially those surrounding the proposed rezoning, rarely resemble a Norman Rockwell painting. Instead, they are often examples of the grit and gristle that emerge in a heavily contested space and are part of the fabric of New York City’s tapestry. Community members must be allowed to be in the same room as their elected and agency officials and to be able to confront those decision-makers – whether community board members, the borough president, city planning commissioners, or city council members – where the tension is not merely abstract.
Shifting to virtual meetings also presumes that all who could attend a traditional in-person public meeting can access the Internet and utilize a program like Zoom in the first place. It leaves behind all those who are not capable of getting online because of access issues or adequate internet connectivity. Alternatively, proceeding with large in-person meetings when many people do not feel safe attending them is not fair to Gowanus residents.
Zoom meetings may be sufficient for certain public matters and may even draw in a wider audience in some cases. However, they cannot provide adequate civic engagement opportunities for a massive rezoning that will result in displacement of people and businesses, that would lead to major residential development in a flood zone, that would allow housing to be built on top of heavily polluted sites, and that would lead to a reduction in manufacturing zoning. The community must also be able to forcefully and publicly push for a better approach on affordable housing, which always gets short-shrifted in big development deals, given the dwindling stock of affordable housing in the area. Further, this rezoning will not require a racial impact study before proceeding, although we support such a study, and adequate attention must be paid to this issue in the ULURP.
Forging ahead on-line at this juncture would suppress the vital public participation and oversight that is guaranteed to City residents by ULURP. Let’s hit the “pause” button on the rezoning until safe, in-person, full-scale community meetings are possible.
Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon is a Democrat representing the 52nd District (Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope, Boerum Hill and DUMBO) and Bradley J. Vogel, esq., is a Gowanus resident.