Rezoning failures? Is DeBlasio's Clout Gone?

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

No “causal link” between rezonings and gentrification​

De Blasio administration, Council members tussle over racial disparity bill
The debate at a City Council hearing on Monday largely revolved around a single question: Do New York City’s rezonings cause displacement?
According to the de Blasio administration, the answer is no.

“We maintain that we can’t find any causal link between our rezonings and gentrification,” said Anita Laremont, the executive director of the Department of City Planning.

The hearing, held by the Council’s land use committee, focused on a bill that would require certain rezonings to include a racial disparity analysis detailing neighborhood demographics and residents’ ability to afford housing built as part of the zoning change.
Some officials criticized what they described as the administration’s unwillingness to analyze the long-term effects of rezonings.

“To try to pretend that the rezoning of the city doesn’t have an outsized impact is just wild to me,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who introduced the bill in May 2019.
Bronx Council member Rafael Salamanca Jr., who chairs the committee and is one of the bill’s primary sponsors, cited a 2019 report that detailed population shifts in Williamsburg and Greenpoint after the neighborhoods were rezoned. The report, released by Churches United for Fair Housing, found that between 2000 and 2015, the population in both neighborhoods increased by more than 20,000, but decreased by 15,000 Latino residents.

However, the area was rezoned in 2005, so the report included data that predated the rezoning by five years — and the construction that followed by seven. City Planning conducted its own study, which found that the rezoned area actually saw a reversal in a decline in its Hispanic population that started in 1990.
“We have different perspectives on what happened there,” Laremont said. “We don’t see it as being a rezoning that led to displacement.”

“This is why I think this bill is crucial,” Salamanca responded.
Laremont said City Planning is committed to working with the City Council on the legislation and pointed to the administration’s “Where We Live NYC” plan, which she said has a similar goal. She also noted that the city started working with an outside consultant to analyze systemic racism in the city.

But, Laremont said, the “greatest disparities in New York City exist across and between neighborhoods, rather than within them,” and that multiple forces contribute to displacement.
Even before the initial version of the racial disparity bill was proposed, housing activists were calling for an overhaul of the land use review process. A community coalition challenged the 2018 Inwood rezoning, alleging that the city should have analyzed the plan’s potential socioeconomic impact.

The courts ultimately sided with the city, but indicated that the coalition could seek a legislative remedy, a point that one of its members, Paul Epstein, noted during Monday’s hearing.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
At the start of the hearing, Williams also proposed revamping the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program to require deeper affordability options — specifically, requiring that 75 percent of residential floor area be set aside for tenants earning between 50 and 70 percent of the area median income.

Under the current program, 25 to 30 percent of apartments must be set aside as permanently affordable, and AMI ranges can be between 60 and 120 percent, depending on the option chosen. Such a change would likely require separate legislation.
The de Blasio administration has said that requiring deeper affordability would render projects uneconomical without heavy subsidies and risk generating no housing at all.
 

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member
Gowanus rezoning on hold — for now
A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 27

A state Supreme Court judge has temporarily halted the Gowanus rezoning proposal.
The City Planning Commission can’t certify the rezoning application until after a hearing is held on Jan. 27, according to an order signed by Judge Donald Kurtz on Friday. The order was in response to a lawsuit filed last week by a coalition of neighborhood groups seeking to block City Planning from certifying the application, which would kick off the city’s seven-month land use review.

“This is a huge relief to our clients and many other community members, who have serious concerns about the lack of equity, access and transparency around the project, and want a meaningful opportunity to be heard,” attorney Jason Zakai, who represents one of the groups in the coalition, Voice of Gowanus.
The city is seeking to rezone 80 blocks in the Brooklyn neighborhood, which would pave the way for the construction of an estimated 8,200 residential units, of which 3,000 would be affordable. Though the city is keen to complete the rezoning before the end of the de Blasio administration, it has yet to commit to including capital funding for two local New York City Housing Authority developments as part of its proposal. Support from Brooklyn Council members Brad Lander and Steve Levin hinges on this funding, and the rezoning hinges on their backing.

The lawsuit claims that it is unlawful for the city to move forward with the Gowanus rezoning because it would need to hold hearings virtually rather than in-person. Doing so as part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure would wrongfully “deprive” community members “the opportunity to physically attend public hearings alongside like-minded attendees and show solidarity in support of a certain position with respect to the Massive Rezoning.”

The complaint also alleges that City Planning failed to send application materials to local community boards and the Brooklyn borough president in a timely fashion, as required under Ulurp.
Despite its failure to adequately notify the public, City Planning expected to certify the Gowanus rezoning application on Jan. 19, according to the lawsuit.

In response to the judge’s order, a representative for the mayor’s office said the city is looking forward to “winning this case, beginning certification, and delivering a rezoning proposal New York City can be proud of.”
“If it were easy to bring affordable housing to Gowanus and clean up the canal, then someone would’ve done it already,” Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for the city said in a statement. “Virtual meetings aren’t just legal and obviously appropriate in a pandemic – they have increased participation and opened the process to those unable to attend in person.”

Throughout the pandemic, various government bodies, including the City Council, have held public meetings remotely. Last year, concerns were raised about the city’s Rent Guidelines Board going virtual with its meetings. The board’s tenant representatives had called for the hearings to be delayed, saying virtual proceedings would prevent crucial interactions between tenants and board members. Those hearings, however, ultimately moved forward.

“Look, this is a pandemic. [The Gowanus coalition’s case] sounds like the arguments that you can only vote in person, that you can’t vote by mail,” said Gary Tarnoff, co-chair of Kramer Levin’s land use department. “People who are opposed to this are just grasping for straws, in my view.”
 

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

Once the Gowanus Canal Is Rid of ‘Black Mayonnaise,’ Who Will Benefit?​

The city may approve a plan in Brooklyn that is one of the biggest rezoning projects in memory. But the debate is not playing out in predictable ways.
Earlier this week, as if an omen sent from the gods of city planning, a barge carrying toxic sediment nearly sank in Gowanus Bay. It was loaded with the “black mayonnaise” dredged up from the Gowanus Canal, sludge that appeared to be in the midst of a dangerous round trip — potentially recontaminating the water that was so slowly being cleaned up after so long. Designated a Superfund site by the federal government in 2010, the canal is a graveyard to industrial sins committed for more than a century.

The filth has not deterred the real estate industry, which sees in every natural asset the potential for leverage. Where a chemist might see poison, the investor so often conjures a room with a view. For decades now, developers have sketched their fantasies onto the waterway’s immediate surrounding area, 20 or so blocks in the middle of brownstone Brooklyn at the nexus of warehouse chic and rowhouse cozy. The will to overlook the downsides has been fierce. Five years ago, a single empty lot near the canal sold for just under $3 million, or roughly $340 per buildable square foot.

At that point, a grand development agenda had already been set in motion to update a neighborhood of metal fabricators, wood shops, a tour-bus parking lot, artists’ studios, a manufacturer of coffins and, in more recent years, the encroachment of luxury apartments. Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials joined developers in imagining high-rises with thousands of new residents — some well-off, others not. Eventually, a proposal emerged that put the neighborhood on the path to one of the biggest rezoning projects in the modern history of New York. As ever, the future hangs on whose vision will prevail.

In recent days, as city officials move closer toward approving the plan, activists opposing it have sued, hoping to slow things down long enough so that the next mayor might re-evaluate it or perhaps abandon it all together.

Alignments and conflicts in the community are not playing out in predictable ways. A prominent local arts group, for example, supports the rezoning, believing it will help rebalance a neighborhood with a 22 percent net decrease in rent stabilized housing stock between 2007 and 2014. Gowanus is already a place with a rock-climbing gym, a Whole Foods and a place to buy $42 salted caramel apple pie.

If the real-estate class finds itself with unlikely allies, it is because of a broadening recognition of how just central mixed communities are to racial and social equality. Fair housing is the starting point.

On one side of the debate are those who see the housing crisis, which has been made only worse by the pandemic, as the city’s paramount challenge. They believe that any effort to bring modestly priced apartments to the area is worth whatever other sacrifices might come. On the other are leftists of an old guard — teachers, public-interest lawyers, artists — who, in many cases, have lived in the neighborhood for decades and largely been mischaracterized as NIMBYs. They are the early readers of “Silent Spring,” those who look around at a landscape subject to so much environmental abuse and wonder why so many other people are being encouraged to live amid so many unknowns.

In many ways, the plan is much more sensitive to progressive social goals than similar efforts have been. Often during the past 20 years, politicians have alienated the communities they hope to refashion by minimally engaging them in the planning process and then capitulating to the demands of developers, extracting far too little value in return.

These disputes are as common in New York as traffic, and they typically reach the point of heated collision when a developer is permitted to build luxury towers in a neighborhood with rapidly changing demographics simply if it commits to making 20 percent of them “affordable.” Increasingly, these affordable units don’t even have to be on the site in question. Very often they end up somewhere else in the city, where land is cheaper, foregoing any potential benefit of economically integrated communities. Generally, “affordable” has meant unaffordable to the working poor.
The Gowanus plan relies on more favorable ratios. Of the 8,000 units to be built over the next decade, more than a third will be reserved for lower-income individuals and families. Some two-bedroom apartments would cost as little as $850 a month. There will be apartments designated for those currently living in shelters or on the street or those who require supportive housing. According to Brad Lander, the city councilman for Gowanus and a chief proponent of the plan, more will be required of developers in exchange for the tax breaks that come to them.
Mr. Lander has also insisted that the city contribute tens of millions of dollars toward repairs necessary in the projects belonging to the New York City Housing Authority situated in and around Gowanus. This is something the community has asked for all along during the many years that rezoning has been discussed.
The real issue here is that 950 units of low-income housing would be built on an enormous city-owned lot — known alternately as Public Place or Gowanus Green — where coal-gas had been manufactured from the mid-19th century through the middle of the 20th. Of the three coal-gas plants that were in Gowanus, two of them, according to Maureen Koetz, a longtime environmental lawyer who has been consulting for those opposing development, were categorized as Class 2 in the early 2000s, meaning that they had been deemed to present a significant threat to public and environmental health. (Class 1 is the most dangerous.)

Currently, the proposed housing site is undergoing cleanup of various hazardous byproducts of manufactured gas, paid for by the public utility company that inherited the problem long ago. “The general practice is not to put housing, or schools for that matter, on these remediated sites,’’ Ms. Koetz told me. “If you are in a warehouse or shopping or in a park, you are there for a limited amount of time so you’re not getting that much exposure.”

In the mid-1940s, when we knew less about environmental toxins, Stuyvesant Town, the sprawling middle-class housing complex on the East River, was built on a defunct coal-gas site. If anyone has ever studied cancer rates over the long term there, this would be the time for the city to reflect on the data and make it known.

At a neighborhood meeting in December, Christos Tsiamis, a chemical engineer managing the cleanup of the canal for the Environmental Protection Agency, warned that compounds even 15 feet below the surface of the gas site will volatilize as a result of construction and could, within a decade, find a pathway into buildings and accumulate, potentially endangering the people who will live in them.

“Nobody who had the resources to live somewhere else would choose to be there,’’ said Penn Rhodeen, a former children’s aid lawyer involved with the activist group Voice of Gowanus. “So it becomes an issue of environmental morality.”

The fight against the Gowanus plan is unfolding at a moment when anti-development activists in New York have been able to claim major victories. Two years ago, they repelled plans for Amazon’s headquarters in Queens. More recently, in Brooklyn’s Industry City, they prevented the kind of rezoning that would have delivered far greater benefits to big business than to the working class.

There is no way to downplay the city’s housing emergency. But it is a dubious proposition to continually market “sustainability” and “resilience” as civic virtues if you cannot assure the most economically vulnerable that the places where you invite them to live won’t eventually make them sick. The current mayoral administration disgraced itself with its deceptions around lead paint in public housing. Why would it proceed now with anything but the greatest vigilance?

The barge accident this week provides a symbolic reminder of history’s relentless talent for payback. By the late 19th century, the Gowanus Canal had become the receptacle for waste from the coal-gas plants, paper factories, masonries, farms and other entities nearby. In 1889, a special commission was dispatched to study the effects of the dumping. It recommended that the canal close because it was such an obvious threat to public health — “a disgrace to Brooklyn.’’

The cost of doing so was going to come in at about $75,000. Everyone decided it was too much.
 

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

When NIMBYs attack: Why CoJo’s master plan won’t fly​

Speaker would put city’s future in hands of experts, not local cranks​

Corey Johnson’s comprehensive planning bill will never pass, for the same reason all such bills never pass: It dilutes the power of neighborhood cranks and naive ideologues to stop new housing.
Predictably, a coalition of the city’s leading NIMBY groups blasted the City Council speaker’s proposal Thursday as a “top-down approach that would leave communities with even less democratic control over massive city rezonings” than they have now.

Well, yes. That is exactly the point.
Not to be anal, but this is not a direct democracy. It’s a republic. We elect leaders, who in turn run the government. We don’t let people with pitchforks decide what can be built where.

The reason is obvious: Left to their own devices, locals make decisions in their own interests, not those of society at large.
For example, limiting the supply of new homes will make your own more valuable, because shoppers will have fewer options. It also spares you from the annoyances of construction — noise, dust, ugliness — costs that the people who move in never have to bear.

When you think about these issues the way economists do, they become clear. Figure out who bears the costs and who reaps the benefits and you can predict how people will respond.

Urban planners and good-government types have been talking for decades about comprehensive planning, knowing that when localities make choices, they never sacrifice for the greater good.
Case in point: It would make sense for the metro area to transport goods by rail to Maspeth, where they could be loaded onto small trucks for short trips to stores in the city and on Long Island. But in that scenario, Maspeth bears the cost of more truck traffic, while the benefits — fewer overall truck trips, lower emissions, longer-lasting roads and bridges — are spread across the region. You can’t blame Maspeth for opposing that plan. That is why top-down planning is essential.

There are other advantages: A more predictable approval process would lower costs for developers, who currently might spend $1 million or more to get a single rezoning through the City Council. And sometimes the local Council member, who singularly controls the fate of rezonings, makes extreme demands or simply says no. Developers compensate for bearing those costs and risks by planning apartments with high profit margins — and the opponents demanding affordability wonder why.

Johnson’s scheme, in a nutshell, simplifies the process by having planning experts decide what could go where, and any project meeting those terms would be approved. The point is not just to lower costs but to have development where it makes sense — near mass transit and other infrastructure that supports it.
“This is a very top-down, dictatorial process,” the NIMBY coalition declared. “For comprehensive planning to be truly democratic it cannot be decided and fast-tracked by those appointed by the mayor.”

But for reasons just explained, comprehensive planning cannot be truly democratic. It would be like letting people decide individually how much tax to pay: Each would pay less than he is paying now, leaving the government unable to provide services and systems that benefit society as a whole.
New York’s lone YIMBY group, Open New York, thinks Johnson’s plan should go further because “it fails to address longstanding practices that allow wealthier neighborhoods to block new housing and shunt demand elsewhere,” said board member Will Thomas.

He was disgusted but hardly surprised by the letter from the anti-development groups including Village Preservation, Voice of Gowanus, Stop Sunnyside Yards, Soho Alliance and the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
“We encourage legislators interested in more equitable city planning to ignore complaints by wealthy NIMBYs who are primarily interested in protecting the status quo,” Thomas said.

Johnson’s plan is a noble gesture that will end up in the ever-growing graveyard of comprehensive planning proposals. But it serves a purpose by keeping the flame alive on a crucial issue, not to mention sparking some entertaining Twitter exchanges.
“As a lifelong resident of Bayside, I’m appalled by the introduction of legislation that robs our communities of the power to have a say in housing development and forces us to accept a system that thoughtlessly adds density,” tweeted Austin Shafran, a City Council candidate.

“Funny thing about Bayside…” someone responded, noting that the neighborhood was ranked among the most expensive housing markets in the nation for comparable detached homes.
Rest assured, whoever wins the seat in Bayside will vote to keep it that way.
 

John Walkup

Talking Manhattan on UrbanDigs.com
"When you think about these issues the way economists do, they become clear. Figure out who bears the costs and who reaps the benefits and you can predict how people will respond."

LOL
 

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

De Blasio administration comes out against NYC Council proposal to simplify city planning​


The de Blasio administration is opposing a City Council proposal to simplify the process for future development, saying legislation from Council Speaker Corey Johnson would be way too expensive.
The bill, scheduled for a Council hearing on Wednesday, would cost the city about half a billion dollars per decade, the administration estimates — and that at a time of shrinking tax revenues due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In the administration’s reading of the bill, every community district in the city would have to undergo assessments of three different development scenarios every 10 years. With an average “environmental impact assessment” costing $2.5 million to carry out, and the city having 59 community districts, that comes to about $450 million per decade, according to the administration.
It also estimates the cost of staffing the undertaking would add another $50 million, not counting costs to the Office of Management and Budget.

De Blasio officials including Planning Commissioner Marissa Lago are expected to testify against Johnson’s bill on Wednesday.
Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, previously said that his legislation would ensure communities get their say from the start of the city planning process and unify development schemes currently spread across several agencies.

“This is streamlining the process. It’s creating coordination. It’s creating more transparency,” he said at a December press conference. “Fifty-nine community boards will be asked proactively, what do you think needs to happen in your district, and then ultimately it will come to the Council.”
 

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

Debate flares up over Johnson’s planning overhaul​

Critics of speaker’s proposal concerned about role of City Council​

The city’s land use and planning process is not perfect — on that much, the City Council and de Blasio administration seem to agree.
But the City Planning Commission criticizes the Council for blocking affordable housing projects and rezonings, while Council members say the process fails to take a long-term view of community needs.
During a heated, day-long hearing Tuesday, City Planning Commissioner Marisa Lago testified against City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s proposal to create a 10-year planning cycle for the city, calling it infeasible and expensive. The administration estimates that environmental reviews alone would cost half a billion dollars.
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Lago said the plan would create a “top-down approach” to land-use decisions, in which the City Council would have even more sway over plans for their districts and be more likely to override the wishes of community boards. Anti-development groups used similar language in objecting to the proposal last week.
Lago repeatedly cited member deference — the tradition of the City Council to fall in line with the local member on land-use decisions — as the guiding force behind actions the administration pursues.

Without buy-in from the local Council member, proposals are dead on arrival. For that reason, Lago said, the administration only pursues land-use actions in communities that have signaled support. The speaker’s proposal, she predicted, would hamstring city planners even more.
Under Johnson’s bill, at least three land-use scenarios would be drafted for each district. The City Council would pick one after receiving input from borough presidents, community boards and the public.

City Council members would not be required to vote on rezoning applications, but could choose to — which Lago said they almost certainly would, effectively adding another “veto point.”
“It basically provides yet another impediment to the construction of affordable housing,” Lago said.
Johnson objected to the cost estimates, saying the measure would streamline the planning process and allow the city to more effectively budget for the needs of each district. He repeatedly asserted that his proposal increases the amount of community involvement in land use and planning decisions and said Lago was misrepresenting the language of his bill.

The Council speaker also pushed back against the idea that the bill would effectively end single-family zoning in the city, resulting in some existing homes being razed to make way for denser housing.
He also called the current process a top-down approach, saying City Planning asks community members to consider zoning proposals that are already “fully baked.”

“This was supposed to be the administration that ended the Tale of Two Cities,” Johnson said, referring to the mayor’s campaign promise to fight inequality. “It doesn’t seem like you all want to do the hard work that we think is necessary.”
Johnson noted that the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and that hospitals in some of these neighborhoods were replaced by luxury housing.

“What makes you pause and think maybe we’re doing something wrong here?” he asked.
Other City Council members asked Lago versions of the same question throughout the hearing: What would she do to increase community involvement and address inequities exacerbated by land-use decisions?
Many admonished her for not answering the question directly. Some members defended member deference as key to protecting the interests of their constituents.
Council member Antonio Reynoso criticized the fact that City Planning abandoned its push to rezone Bushwick after he and Council member Rafael Espinal demanded that the agency study an alternative community proposal that called for deeply affordable housing and fewer units.
That plan called for only 2,000 units, all of them affordable. The city’s plan called for nearly the same number of such units, but also more than 3,000 others to subsidize the affordable ones.

Reynoso said the community showed willingness to work with City Planning, but the agency had an all-or-nothing approach, resulting in no affordable housing being built. The agency, he said, chose to “relegate the community to destruction by gentrification.”
Council member Brad Lander, a sponsor of Johnson’s bill, cited the proposal to rezone Gowanus — which he said has “taken the better part of a decade” to get underway — as a reason for reform. He said the city’s land use process has become “toxic and broken.”

Council member Deneek Miller said he was concerned that the bill does not adequately increase community involvement in city planning. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified that the bill could achieve certain planning goals, but voiced concern that it “doesn’t put communities at the center of the planning process.”
She also addressed criticism of the proposal to rezone Soho, blaming the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program for an inadequate level of affordable housing in the plan.

The Real Estate Board of New York testified that it supports some of the goals laid out by Johnson, but that the bill fails to “establish a framework to resolve competing priorities between localized community needs and the citywide goals.”
The industry group also highlighted that City Council members likely won’t forego their ability to have the final say on rezoning applications.

“The Council is not a mere bystander, but a principal in the current land-use process,” the group wrote in prepared testimony. “This legislation does not address this underlying principle.”
 

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

De Blasio wades into Gowanus rezoning, seeks dismissal of lawsuit​

Administration says mayor’s executive order ends debate about virtual hearings​

The de Blasio administration is urging the court to dismiss a lawsuit holding up the rezoning of Gowanus, saying a recent executive order negates claims that hearings must be held in person.
In a legal filing Wednesday, the city pointed to a March 13 executive order signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio suspending rules that community board hearings for the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure must be at a “place of convenient public assembly.”

Community groups fighting the rezoning have demanded the city postpone the rezoning approval process until in-the-flesh hearings return.

An attorney for the city, Rachel Ramirez-Guest, argued that the groups’ claims didn’t hold water even before the executive order, but that the mayor’s action eliminates any ambiguity on the matter.
“We’re urging the court to dismiss this case because there is no legal basis to support these claims,” Nick Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, said in a statement.

He noted that virtual meetings have increased public participation. “This litigation is preventing community voices from being heard and is delaying the creation of jobs, housing, open spaces, and a number of other community amenities.” (A final benefits agreement between the administration and the local City Council members, Brad Lander and Steve Levin, has not been reached.)

Jason Zakai, an attorney for plaintiff Voice of Gowanus, issued a statement calling the executive order “an obvious and desperate attempt to bypass the judicial process.”
A state judge in January temporarily halted the application to rezone 80 blocks of Gowanus in response to the suit, which argues hearings on the proposal can’t be held remotely under city rules. The complaint also accused City Planning of violating new regulations around notifying the public of its intention to move forward with a rezoning application.

Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Katherine Levine has indicated that she thinks the city provided ample notice. And while she has supported the idea of finding ways to increase public access to the process, she has repeatedly said that remote hearings are an unavoidable part of the pandemic.
The city is now calling on the coalition to show why the judge shouldn’t dismiss its lawsuit. At a minimum, the city wants the judge to allow the rezoning application to be certified and move forward through the Ulurp process.

Supporters of the rezoning are worried that the lawsuit will delay the seven-month process enough so that it cannot be completed before de Blasio, Lander and Levin leave office at the end of the year, which would throw the outcome into doubt.
 

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member
City Must Ensure All Can Give Public Testimony Before Crown Heights Rezoning Can Resume
Citing the difficulties of accessing virtual community meetings for those without Internet access, a Brooklyn judge upheld a temporary restraining order against the controversial Spice Factory rezoning at 960 Franklin Avenue — saying the city needed to provide a platform for everyone to voice their opinions before she would allow the Botanic Garden-adjacent towers to move ahead.
“I will not allow this thing to go forward until you get your act together and make sure that everyone who wants to speak, including Brooklyn Botanic Garden, members of the board, and everybody else can have their two-minute spiel,” said Kings County Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine at a virtual hearing on March 18. “The TRO is going to be there until we find a way to proceed.”
Developer Continuum Company is looking to rezone across from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to build two buildings over 30 stories high, along with various other towers between 16 and 20 stories. The project has generated considerable controversy due to the potential threat it poses to the garden, which has been vocal in its opposition to the project — including their “Fight For Sunlight” campaign.

Levine granted the temporary restraining order against the rezoning on March 2 after neighborhood activists filed suit, arguing that virtual meetings — newly part of the the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) due to COVID — barred those without access to high-speed Internet, especially in the low to moderate income neighborhood of Crown Heights, which the mega-development would affect.
“These are elderly people, they do not have computer savvy, they do not have computers,” said neighborhood activist Alicia Boyd on March 18. “They are on fixed incomes, they make $15,000 a year, they can’t even afford to have Internet access.”

During the follow-up hearing on Thursday, Levine stuck to her guns, saying the city should provide a COVID-safe gathering space for people in the community to gather and tune into the virtual hearings.
“It seems to me that one way to deal with people who don’t have Internet is to provide a community space with social distancing and lots of hand sanitizer, so somebody can go onto the computer, and they can all hang out and look at it,” Levine said.

Levine suggested setting up a number of computer stations at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, a large college campus near the Botanic Garden that has been used for previous community meetings, as well as a vaccine mega-site during the pandemic.
Lawyers for Bruce Eichner’s Continuum Company said the firm supports the idea and is willing to help provide resources to set up a community space.
“They are willing to set up the community center that you suggested,” said Jennifer Recine. “We want — and I cannot convey this strongly enough — we want to provide a forum for people and the community to participate as robustly as possible.”

Attorneys for the developer argued that the land-use process should be resumed while they develop a plan to set up a community center — but were refuted by Levine, who said the temporary restraining order would remain until a concrete plan was hatched.
“I am not going to lift the TRO on holding the ULURP until we have a mechanism in place,” Levine said.
Levine is also the judge in a similar case concerning the neighborhood-wide Gowanus rezoning — where opponents have advocated for a halt of all rezonings until in-person meetings can resume.

City lawyers most recently argued in the Gowanus case that an executive order signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, officially designating virtual hearings as legal, mandates that the anti-rezoning case and ones like it should be thrown out, but Levine said on March 18 that she would “not be dealing” with the executive order.
If approved, the Botanic Garden-adjacent tower project would bring 1,578 rental units, half of which would be designated “affordable.” An alternate proposed rezoning for the site would allow for towers topping out at 17 stories, with 1,170 total rental apartments, 292 of which would be designated “affordable.”
 
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