This past Monday a Brooklyn judge lifted the temporary restraining order on the controversial Gowanus rezoning. The land use proposal is now allowed to move ahead to the public hearing phase of the approval process after months of bitter legal battles.
The rezoning was originally conceived by ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, but found new life under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
It would rezone an 80-square-block area of the neighborhood to make way for new developments, including a controversial plan to build a complex on the highly polluted “Public Place” site along the Gowanus Canal.
The grassroots community group Voice of Gowanus, as well as other elected officials and organizers, have consistently opposed the plan. Their criticism is directed at both the legal process to approve the rezoning and the environmental risks that could come with new development.
In a meeting last month, Voice of Gowanus members argued that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) for city projects should be halted during the pandemic. Alicia Boyd from the Crown Heights group Movement to Protect the People, explained how Virtual ULURP hearings were inaccessible for many New Yorkers.
“Forty percent of our community did not have access for an online hearing,” Boyd explained. “It’s another way to silence people’s voices, there is no way to protest.”
Jason Zakai, an attorney for the group, applied for a motion from the courts that would compel the city to conduct ULURP in person or otherwise more adequately, resulting in the restraining order.
“Before we even get to the political process, we need to make sure it is done correctly,” Zakai explained during last month’s meeting. “We want the city to follow New York City law.”
This past week, that restraining order was reversed when New York Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine ruled to allow the city to continue with the public review process so long as an in-person hearing option was offered for those without internet access.
The in-person hearing will take place at J.J. Bryne Playground in Park Slope and will coincide with the virtual hearing. The date and time are yet to be announced.
However, Voice of Gowanus is still fighting the rezoning.
“The lifting of the temporary restraining order was provisional and contingent upon the city meeting certain requirements, which it has not yet done,” Zakai clarified in a new statement. “The court proceeding continues, and Voice of Gowanus will not waver in its fight on behalf of the community to ensure there is increased public participation, access, and transparency at any public hearings on the massive and controversial rezoning plan.”
Despite the pushback, the two City Council members representing the area — Brad Lander of and Stephen Levin — support the rezoning. In a statement, Lander’s Land Use and Budget director Julia Ehrman spoke of the need for the rezoning and the importance of forthcoming environmental review processes.
“The Gowanus neighborhood has been changing around us with as-of-right development over the last decade,” Ehrman wrote. “As we emerge from the pandemic, we have a chance to steer its future in the direction of a more integrated, affordable, and resilient community.
“Now that the public process is moving forward, we can have the conversations we need to ensure the rezoning plan addresses critical issues in Gowanus,” she added, “including the clean up, infrastructure, and funding for NYCHA.”
The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in the world, due in large part to its history as a former hub for industry.
Voice of Gowanus members are concerned that development along the waterway, especially at the Public Place site, could release residual contamination into the neighborhood.
Yet even as the rezoning moves towards public hearings, there is no guarantee that the project will see the light of day. The ULURP process typically takes seven months, leaving time for a new mayor and City Council to change course in Gowanus.