Local Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon is calling on city officials to pause the planned Gowanus rezoning, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic has stripped locals’ ability to weigh in on the hotly-contested proposal.
“To be able to coordinate, cheer, clap and even boo from time to time is an essential part of the process – and that can only happen at a large, in-person meeting, the kind where it’s possible to hold signs or wear clothing sporting advocacy messages,” Simon wrote in an August 3 op-ed in City Limits, which was co-authored by the captain of the Gowanus Canal Dredgers Canoe Club, Brad Vogel.
The pol and the paddler argue that virtual hearings on web-conferencing platforms like Zoom give government officials too much power to stifle public input by cutting people’s mics, unlike in person meetings, which can become notoriously raucous.
“City officials, as we’ve seen, have total power to mute an attendee in a virtual meeting – cutting off another one of the classic avenues open to a citizen attending a public meeting: the ability to finish your point after an official has cut you off,” they wrote.
Not long after the news site published the op-ed, the Department of City Planning — which is tasked with overseeing the rezoning — announced that uniform land use review procedures, known as ULURP, would resume citywide on September 14, six months after Mayor Bill de Blasio suspended the process due to the coronavirus outbreak in March.
DCP still has to complete a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Gowanus rezoning, which would formally trigger the seven-month review process. Agency spokesman Joe Marvilli declined to disclose when that will happen.
The rep said that the social distancing requirements make it impossible to hold in-person hearings, but that officials still want to push ahead with the Gowanus rezoning and allow New Yorkers to give their input online or by phone. He pointed to the new city portal NYC Engage officials launched on July 15 to help New Yorkers navigate and participate in upcoming virtual public meetings.
“Because the physical distancing requirements have made traditional forms of public engagement impossible, DCP created the NYC Engage portal,” Marvilli said in a statement. “This easy-to-access-and-use system means New Yorkers can participate by phone or online, including seniors, caregivers and small business owners who often are not be able to attend in-person meetings. DCP continues to work to find opportunities for the public to participate in planning for their communities.”
Simon and Vogel conceded that virtual hearings work for some civic meetings, and can in fact widen participation for people who can better take part remotely — like community boards and the Landmarks Preservation Committee, which have held dozens of hearings online since the pandemic began.
But the third-term Assemblywoman told Brooklyn Paper that the Gowanus rezoning will have many more far-reaching impacts than other smaller developments — including on the environment, housing, and businesses — and contended that holding hearings online would diminish one of the few meaningful public input sessions available during the process.
“This is a huge rezoning effort, it’s not the ULURP of a building or two blocks,” she said. “We’re cutting off a lot of the value of the actual engagement. It makes it a more hollow experience.”
The state doesn’t have a formal role in the city’s review process, and Simon said she’s not against many of the proposed sweeteners — like an increase of affordable housing in expensive brownstone Brooklyn — but that she wanted the public to get their fair shake.
“I’m not opposed per se to the rezoning, but I think it needs to be very very carefully managed, and that’s enhanced by the public’s engagement,” she said.
Her and Vogel’s op-ed also calls on the city to study the racial impacts of a potential Gowanus rezoning — which comes after Public Advocate Jumaane Williams introduced legislation in May that would mandate such a review. Local Councilman Brad Lander signed on as a sponsor for the bill, but the Council has yet to pass it.
Simon and Vogel’s push to pause the Gowanus rezoning echoes petitions by longtime opponents of the neighborhood revamp, collectively known as Voice of Gowanus, who asked to postpone the rezoning in June for similar reasons, and in July demanded the city add in a racial impact study.
Their initiative to stall the process was met by a counter-petition by pro-development group Open New York urging the city to forge ahead with the rezoning as soon as possible.
Mayor Bill de Blasio first pitched the Gowanus rezoning back in 2016, and the city has publicly presented its schemes several times ever since.
Lander, who has been eager to see the rezoning move ahead, previously said in response to the battling petitions that the community has been highly involved over the years and will continue to be in the future.
“The Gowanus process — love it or hate it — has been one of the most participatory processes, maybe in the history of planet earth,” the legislator said in June. “We need to honor that and restart it in a way that has robust community engagement.”
The councilman did not return a request for comment on the op-ed by press time.