Gowanus Residents Want to Halt Rezoning Until in-Person ULURP Meetings Can Resume

Photo by Susan De Vries

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Can the city push through a rezoning during a pandemic?

This is what is currently worrying residents in Gowanus, who feel that the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure shouldn’t begin in January 2021, as the Department of City Planning has previously announced, because public hearings can’t safely be held in person.

“If safe, full-scale, in-person public hearings are not possible this winter due to the pandemic, then the ULURP process should not start for Gowanus until conditions have changed,” said Gowanus resident Brad Vogel.

Many of the complaints stem from Community Board 6’s Land Use Committee meeting on October 23, where residents complained that the virtual meeting was rife with problems, including transparency around who was attending, how people could ask questions, and who was choosing what questions would be addressed.

“Part of any community dialogue is being able to not only hear what people say but perhaps read body language, and get a sense of the group politic,” said a CB6 board member. “Is this person sharing their own opinion or is there collective support of that opinion? That comes across in lots of ways in a community meeting. It can be disruptive, but community relations are like that. They’re messy. But I think it’s necessary for the process.”

gowanus canal

Photo by Susan De Vries

In their arguments, many residents have cited the city’s own charter, which states that a community board meeting “shall be held at a convenient place of public assembly chosen by the board and located within its community district” and that “all persons appearing and wishing to speak shall be given an opportunity to speak.”

This has led residents to believe that moving forward with virtual meetings cannot happen as part of the ULURP process. “It’s unseemly to do it this way,” said Penn Rhodeen, a lawyer, author and local resident. “There’s a reason why there’s a very spelled out procedure in the character. If you can’t follow it that means you’re not in a position to resolve these things.”

For some, that is just the tip of the iceberg. “There is no provision in virtual ULURP for community members who wish to participate in the public process who don’t have WIFI, digital literacy or access to technology and as a result, there is not an equal opportunity for all community members to attend virtual hearings or provide input on rezoning proposals,” said Nora Almeida, a Gowanus resident, environmental activist and CUNY librarian.

gowanus brooklyn

Photo by Susan De Vries

Others have argued that the virtual meetings actually broaden outreach to the community by allowing more people to participate via their electronic devices from home, as opposed to having to attend a meeting in person. Over 350 people were signed in to the virtual meeting on October 23, which many say was a positive turnout.

Councilmember Brad Lander wrote in an email sent to residents on November 12 that some of the concerns about their voices being ignored have been addressed and would be implemented at the next meeting, which took place Thursday, where the Department of City Planning presented on the topic of Gowanus Green as part of a series of pre-certification meetings. But he added that, because of time constraints, not everyone would be able to speak.

Brad Lander at the October 23 virtual meeting.

The city says they understand the problems and continue to work on solutions. “DCP launched the NYC Engage portal, a multimedia platform that allows New Yorkers to easily participate in our essential public land use review process during a global pandemic,” said DCP spokesperson Joe Marvilli. “Like many government bodies that have moved to remote meetings, the City Council, New York State legislature and U.S. Supreme Court among them, we will continue to work together to make this a fairer and more equitable society.”

But for many, the city belies its own statements by pushing through a rezoning under unfavorable circumstances for the community.

“The city has a set of rules that they want to abide by in terms of zoning and they just won’t think outside the box,” said a CB6 board member. “If anything the pandemic has shown us it’s you have to start thinking outside the box.”

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