New York State judge Katherine Levine will hear arguments on Thursday about lifting a temporary restraining order barring hearings on the Gowanus rezoning proposal in Brooklyn. At stake are thousands of units of affordable housing. If Judge Levine mulls the matter over long enough before reversing the restraining order, the delay could kill some vitally needed housing.
The Gowanus rezoning is one of several efforts by the de Blasio administration to permit higher-density residential buildings in an area previously zoned for manufacturing that has long since vanished. In place of the low-slung warehouses clustered around the Gowanus canal, the rezoning would provide housing for people considerably poorer than the Gowanus neighborhood’s current residents. The median household income of Community Board 6, where most of the rezoning is located, is $115,000—roughly twice the income of the median household in New York City. The rezoning, by contrast, would permit 950 below-market-rate units on city-owned land. Half of these units would be reserved for residents making 50 percent or less of the area median income. The rent on thousands of other units would be capped under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.
Predictably, many Gowanus residents oppose the proposal. Friends & Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG) sued the city to challenge the rezoning’s legality. The lawsuit’s spirit is expressed in one of FROGG’s affidavits, from a neighbor supporting the group’s restraining order petition, which complained that virtual Zoom hearings were inadequate because she would not be able to tell whether other speakers were “a bunch of outsiders, acting as vultures to destroy the Gowanus neighborhood [she] love[s].”
A careful look at FROGG’s brief shows that it is supported by little more than such dislike of “outsiders.” FROGG argues that the community board did not receive the 30-day notice required by the city charter because the email sent to the board contained only a link to a webpage, on which it was difficult to find details about the proposed rezoning. They also claim that virtual hearings do not satisfy the charter and Department of City Planning’s rules, because those hearings are not “public hearings” that are “held at a convenient place of public assembly . . . located within the community district” or “a centrally located place of public assembly within the borough.”
These arguments are just empty stalling tactics. Mandatory 30-day notices are always disseminated as terse messages, and official hearings—including city council hearings and court proceedings—have been undertaken successfully during the pandemic. FROGG’s affidavits complain that, for some people, virtual hearings make participation hard for some. Maybe, but in-person hearings are equally inconvenient for others.
The flimsiness of FROGG’s arguments suggest that they are merely designed to delay the process. If Judge Levine sits on the TRO petition long enough, the delay could kill the Gowanus rezoning even if it is ultimately reversed. Brad Lander, the local council member who has championed the Gowanus rezoning, will leave office this year. Likewise, the rezoning’s affordable housing depends on financing from developers like the Jonathan Rose Companies that could dry up as time drags on.
Multiple public hearings have been held on the Gowanus rezoning since 2016. The proposal is drowning in process. It is time for the courts to end the stalling and let the public review begin.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images