Gowanus rezoning opponents lawyer up for potential legal challenge

Picture of protesters against the Gowanus rezoning
Opponents of the city’s Gowanus rezoning, under the banner Voice of Gowanus, rally at the Carroll Street Bridge on Jan. 12.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Opponents of the city’s Gowanus rezoning lawyered up to potentially challenge the neighborhood-wide land use proposal in court, advocates announced Tuesday.

“We intend to fight this proposal tooth and nail to make sure the very serious health and safety concerns, the economic and social justice concerns that we have are heard and that the city cannot move forward with this immensely misguided plan,” said Jack Riccobono, of the anti-rezoning group Voice of Gowanus, at a Jan. 12 press conference at the Carroll Street Bridge.

As the Department of City Planning plans to certify the rezoning proposal on Jan. 19, officially launching the seven to nine month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, Voice of Gowanus has hired land use attorney Jason Zakai, who said the city must shelve the scheme.

“There are serious problems both with the massive rezoning proposal itself, and with the lack of transparency concerning the proposal, and we are looking into all legal options on behalf of our client,” Zakai said in a statement. “Rather than move forward with such a problematic plan, the City should go back to the drawing board and shelve it for another day.”

Zakai and his employer — law firm Hiller PC, which on Twitter bills itself as “protectors of the little guy” — previously worked on behalf of homeless shelter residents in Manhattan’s Lucerne Hotel, successfully getting a judge to temporarily block the city’s efforts to move the unhoused out.

Fellow activist and avid canoer of the Gowanus, Brad Vogel, declined to say what legal angle the group will pursue or whether they’ll file for a lawsuit before or after the rezoning’s certification next week.

“Our legal strategy will be revealed in due course,” Vogel told Brooklyn Paper.

The years-in-the-works proposal by the city would allow high-rise residential development in the mostly low-strung manufacturing neighborhood along the Gowanus Canal.

The city estimates the rezoning will bring 8,000 new homes to Gowanus by 2035 — 3,000 of which will be earmarked as “affordable” units tied to residents’ income levels — with new towers rising up to 22-30 stories in height.

Vogel has criticized the city for holding meetings about the rezoning on Zoom amid the COVID-19 pandemic, saying officials used the web-conferencing platform to control and muzzle critics of the plans, and that virtual meetings didn’t cut it for such a large-scale scheme.

Others cited concerns of environmental safety of building along the noxious canal, especially the fully-affordable housing site at Public Place, which is slated for a heavily-polluted former gas manufacturing site.

The group gained the support of Alicia Boyd, a high-profile activist who has sued the city to halt the controversial high-rises at 960 Franklin Ave. in Crown Heights, who said the courts were the only avenue left.

“This is what happens, we have to fight it in the courts because our elected officials no longer representing us, they’re representing big state real estate,” Boyd said at the Tuesday rally.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency in November started the first phase of cleaning up the heavily-polluted waterway as part of its Superfund program, which is slated to take roughly a decade to complete. 

In response to Tuesday’s rally, DCP spokesman Joe Marvilli said the rezoning will provide more affordable housing, open space, and a cleaner canal, among other benefits for the neighborhood. 

“The Gowanus Neighborhood Plan will bring permanently affordable housing, a cleaner Canal, infrastructure investments, new jobs, open space and more,” Marvilli said in a statement. “We look forward to advancing this plan to increase equity and opportunity for all New Yorkers, keeping Gowanus creative and eclectic while also making it more affordable, greener and more vibrant.”