A lawsuit has temporarily suspended the start of the land use review procedure for the controversial rezoning, which critics want halted until the city can resume in-person meetings once the threat of COVID-19 passes. But other community members are frustrated by the delay.

Gowanus Canal

Adi Talwar

The Gowanus Canal.

A local Gowanus group will face the city in court this Thursday after a Supreme court judge granted a temporary restraining order pausing the de Blasio administration’s proposal to rezone 80 blocks of the Brooklyn neighborhood — though other local stakeholders have expressed frustrations with the delay, decrying the lawsuit as a tactic to keep public discussions of the controversial rezoning from moving forward. 

Voice of Gowanus filed the legal challenge just days before the certification of the rezoning which was slated to take place on Jan. 19th. Their lawsuit challenges the city’s plan to use virtual hearings during the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process for the rezoning, arguing that the online events are not an adequate replacement for in-person public meetings. 

When the pandemic struck the city in March, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an emergency order to suspend ULURP, but restarted it again in October by shifting to virtual public meetings via an online portal, NYC Engage. While the city says the online meetings have drawn more attendees than prior in-person events, Voice of Gowanus’ petition, filed on Jan. 15, argues the virtual platform is insufficient.

“The Coalition and other members of the community have a clear right to in-person public hearings on the ULURP Application, but Respondents are depriving them of such right,” the court filing reads. “Respondents are refusing to give the public an adequate opportunity to be heard and to participate in the public review process mandated by the City Charter and City Rules. This violates the entire purpose for which ULURP was enacted in the first place – to ensure public participation in significant land-use decisions by the City.”

Eight members from the Voice of Gowanus — which held a protest march against the rezoning to Councilmember Brad Lander’s office this weekend — filed their affidavits along with the petition, which demanded the city put a “pause” on all ULURP-related virtual hearings for proposal until they can be held in-person. The lawsuit also alleges the city failed to give formal 30-day notice about the certification of the Gowanus ULURP application (Community Board 6 previously announced the certification date during a Dec. 9 virtual meeting, while the city sent out an email notification on Dec. 18.)

Justice Donald Kurtz granted a temporary restraining order on Jan. 15, and the city’s Law Department unsuccessfully attempted to lift the order last week. This Thursday, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine will hear both parties’ arguments in the case before deciding whether to grant Voices of Gowanus’ request for a preliminary injunction to halt the rezoning until in-person public meetings can resume. The judge has up to 60 days to issue a decision.

Meanwhile, other community members say the lawsuit has hindered them from gaining critical insights about the proposed rezoning by delaying the Jan. 19th release of the city’s environmental impact statement (EIS), a lengthy document examining the impact of the rezoning on local infrastructure, residential and commercial displacement, transit, pollution and more.

Last week, a majority of Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 signed onto a letter sent to the Department of City Planning saying they are ready to move forward with ULURP and have been eagerly awaiting the results of the EIS. Community engagement discussions around the proposed rezoning—which the city projects would trigger the creation of an estimated 8,200 new apartments in the area by 2035—have already been underway for years, the letter notes.

“We are eager for that process to continue. After years of conversation on this important topic, it is past time for the Community Board to weigh in so we can get this important community issue right,” it reads. “Our Members hold a number of varying perspectives on the rezoning, and the issues—from environmental justice to housing affordability and manufacturing jobs—that the rezoning involves. But the way for a community’s voice to be heard is to let the community process move forward—not to stifle the voices of our community just as this important dialogue is set to formally begin.”

Eric McClure, CB6 transit committee chair and executive director of StreetsPAC, said he is generally supportive of the rezoning, especially of its affordable housing component, but has concerns about its impact on transit—concerns which could have been addressed in detail within the environmental impact statement and in the ULURP process.

“For me a big aspect of making [the rezoning] successful is having the transportation capacity to add that number of new people to the neighborhood. I think it’s really important that they address issues around the subways, bus service and bike lanes to make sure that those people can get around to where they need to go,” said McClure, who signed onto the CB6 letter.

Alec Schierenbeck, another CB6 member who also belongs to the pro-housing development group Open New York, says he suspects the lawsuit is an effort to run out the ULURP clock on the rezoning until the next administration takes office, since both the mayor and local Councilmember Lander—who supports the rezoning and whose vote could likely mean approval of the proposal in the City Council—are term-limited after this year.

“This is a delay for delay’s sake by people who want to prevent any new construction and any new housing production in their neighborhood. So it’s a pretty typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) lawsuit,” said Schierenbeck.

Another community group, the Gowanus Neighborhood Justice Coalition (GNJC), said in a statement that it had also been awaiting the release of the city’s EIS, particularly as it applies to several of their own demands for the rezoning and its potential impacts. The coalition, which includes tenants from NYCHA’s Wyckoff Gardens and Gowanus complexes, has called for the rezoning proposal to include capital funding for NYCHA improvements and to address environmental issues in the neighborhood, including sewage overflow into the Gowanus Canal.

“GNCJ—a racially and socio-economically diverse coalition—has been advocating together over the past 5 years for equity, inclusion, economic and environmental justice and sustainability in Gowanus,” the group said in a statement, saying it is imperative that there be sufficient time for the CB6 vote during ULURP rather than “last-minute, behind-the-door negotiations.”

Talli Somekh, a Voices of Gowanus member, says his group is not alone in its criticisms of the city’s public land use review process and concerns about transparency.

“I think there is a general frustration across the city, and a lot of these neighborhoods, as to how these land use decisions are being made,” he said. “There are structures and processes that are supposed to be public, but more often than not, it feels that these decisions are made in back rooms rather than in public arenas.”

Typically during the ULURP process, a land use application is certified by the City Planning Commission, then the community board gets 60 days to review the proposal and must hold a public hearing on it. The board can vote to  approve or disapprove the rezoning application, either with or without conditions, though its recommendations are only advisory. After the community board review, the borough president has 30 days to give a recommendation, which is also only advisory. The City Planning Commission then has 60 days to vote on the proposal, which then goes before the City Council, which has 50 days to act.

Lawmakers have recently proposed overhauls to the city’s land use procedures: Council Speaker Corey Johnson is pushing for the city to adopt a comprehensive plan, while another bill proposed in the City Council would require certain land use applications study the impact a project could have on a neighborhood’s racial demographics.

Discussions about rezoning Gowanus date back to the Bloomberg administration in 2008, though those earlier plans stalled after the Gowanus Canal was designated a superfund site in 2010, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was tasked with the clean-up effort.