Opponents of Gowanus Rezoning Hire Counsel For Potential Legal Challenge

Rendering of the post-rezoning Gowanus canal bridge crossing with waterfront development and pedestrian activity. (Department of City Planning)

A group of residents pushing back against a controversial Gowanus rezoning have lawyered up in preparation to potentially challenge the city proposal in court.

The group, called Voice of Gowanus, announced yesterday that it had retained the legal counsel of Attorney Jason Zakai< of the law firm Hiller, P.C, a land-use, zoning and preservation law firm based in Manhattan.

“The proposed rezoning stinks worse than the Gowanus Canal on a bad day,” said Katia Kelly of Voice of Gowanus in a statement. “We’ve retained counsel, and we’ll fight the city’s ill-advised plan in court if we must.”

The Department of City Planning (DCP) says the goal of the proposed rezoning is to advance the much-needed cleanup of the Gowanus Canal as well as develop affordable housing, job opportunities, and infrastructure upgrades. The rezoning would allow for the creation of new housing along the Canal, remediate existing brownfield sites, and elevate the shoreline to protect from future sea-level rise, among other initiatives that would transform what is now a mostly low-rise, 80-block area made up predominantly of warehouses and industrial buildings.

A map of the area under rezoning consideration. (Department of City Planning)

“The Gowanus Neighborhood Plan will bring permanently affordable housing, a cleaner Canal, infrastructure investments, new jobs, open space, and more,” said DCP spokesperson Joe Marvilli in a statement provided to Bklyner. “We look forward to advancing this plan to increase equity and opportunity for all New Yorkers, keeping Gowanus creative and eclectic while also making it more affordable, greener and more vibrant.”

The city says the rezoning would trigger the creation of about 8,200 new apartments by 2035, with about 3,000 of them below-market rate under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. Other proposed changes include the creation of nearly 700,000 square feet of commercial space, as well as new schools and parkland.

The proposal is the result of five years of intense back-and-forth and over 100 hours of community and business meetings, some of which have been quite volatile. The city paused its land use proceedings when the pandemic swept through the city in mid-March, but started up again in mid-September with virtual meetings. The city has launched an “NYC Engage” portal to facilitate public participation in those virtual events.

City officials say holding the meetings virtually has actually led to a boost in attendance; on October 22, more than 350 people logged on to a meeting about the Gowanus proposal. But Voice of Gowanus activists insist the switch to a remote public process has been insufficiently transparent. 

They also say the rezoning risks increasing sewage overflows into the Gowanus Canal and compromising the ongoingGowanus superfund site cleanup. The group has called for a moratorium on the Gowanus Uniform Land Use Review Proceedings (ULURP) until the pandemic ends.

“Protecting our community’s rights to due process and ensuring that laws are followed even during a pandemic are top priorities for us,” said Brad Vogel, another Voice of Gowanus member. “Just because a mayor or council member’s term will be ending doesn’t mean the rules regarding land use review can be suspended. Especially when the proposed rezoning is as drastic and unsustainable as the one being put forward here in Gowanus.” 

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has said the rezoning could actually reduce the sewer and rainwater overflow that runs into the canal because of a new regulation called the Unified Stormwater Rule. The rule, still under development, will require most large developments to retain stormwater on their property in an attempt to prevent a backup in the city’s sewer system that would spill into waterways, including the canal. Voice of Gowanus has called DEP’s argument “entirely bogus.”

A view of the Gowanus Canal from the Union Street Bridge (Photo: Nathan Haselby/Bklyner)

Zakai, the group’s attorney, earlier this year represented homeless residents sheltered at the Lucerne Hotel in the Upper West Side in a successful bid to temporarily block the city from moving them elsewhere.

“There are serious problems both with the massive rezoning proposal itself, and with the lack of transparency concerning the proposal, and we are looking into all legal options on behalf of our client,” Zakai said in a statement. “Rather than move forward with such a problematic plan, the City should go back to the drawing board and shelve it for another day.” 

In a press release, activists critiqued the potential permitting of “22-30 story luxury residential towers in a vulnerable flood zone,” and the possibility of housing being built on Public Place, which they called “one of the most toxic sites in the city, which will never be fully cleaned of plumes of carcinogenic coal tar extending 100 feet below the surface.”

The site, which the city has earmarked for a mixed-use development called the Gowanus Green, is being remediated by National Grid, with work set to wrap in 2021. After that, the site’s planned development team is expected to begin their own remediation work; that remediation plan is expected to be shared publicly before construction starts.

Council Member Brad Lander, whose district encompasses part of the area under consideration, declined to comment on the group’s decision to hire an attorney. He has been generally supportive of the plan, telling Bklyner in August that “it has the potential to be really, the city’s first fair housing rezoning.”

“If we’re going to do it,” he said, “it’s going to be because we invest in more equal and integrated places because we invest in more sustainable neighborhoods and do it in a way that creates jobs and promotes economic activity over the next couple of years with a long-term investment approach, and here’s a pretty good opportunity to do that.”

DCP plans to certify the rezoning proposal on January 19, which would officially kick off the nine month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process (ULURP) required to bring the rezoning to fruition.

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Billy Richling

Billy Richling

Billy Richling is a staff reporter for Bklyner, covering politics, real estate and everything else. He lives in Flatbush, and previously worked as Constituent & Communications Manager for the Times Square Alliance. Talk to him about baseball, buses and bagels.

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