Worth the Fight: Two Brooklyn neighborhoods taking on developers
Brooklyn political activist Alicia Boyd recently attended an ongoing court hearing regarding her case against the New York City Department of City Planning. Boyd is a Crown Heights resident who is fighting against a development planned for 960 Franklin Ave. that would not only block hours of sunlight from neighboring Brooklyn Botanic Garden but potentially displace her long-time neighbors.
During the hearing, Boyd argued in defense of Crown Heights residents who have been left out of the decision-making process. As part of the city’s uniform land use review process (ULURP), potential developers must present their plan in front of the local community board where all those who want to participate will have the option to have their opinions heard.
Boyd was worried that the community board would not be able to accommodate the sheer amount of people who wanted to join in on the conversation based on a preliminary Zoom meeting in February which drew hundreds of participants and caused technical difficulties. According to Boyd, there were also residents who wanted to engage but could not because of lack of internet access or otherwise unfamiliarity with the Zoom platform.
The judge agreed with Boyd and felt it was necessary for the community board to host a simultaneous in-person and virtual meeting. The developers agreed to find and pay for a space to do so and to make certain that their reach is fully extended to the Crown Heights neighborhood. Since the community board meeting is part of ULURP, the process has been stalled until concrete plans are made.
Just a few days after the hearing, on March 22nd, the developers signed an affidavit stating they are no longer supporting the idea of an in-person option for the community board meeting. They cited COVID-19 safety concerns as their reason. The judge overseeing the case, Honorable Katherine Levine, replied to the affidavit with shock stating, “I am a bit amazed that within four days of what I thought was a productive meeting, Developer Respondents now raise the argument that it is impossible for the City to make any accommodations to provide access to computers or viewing for those residents who have no access to the web.” The developers responded again with fear that they “could face substantial liability if a community member were to be infected at an in-person access center.”
In many ways, the 960 Franklin Ave. case will set new standards for future projects. This is an argument that developers used with regard to the community board meeting protocol. They say that changing the process for this situation by requiring an in-person meeting will set the precedent for meetings moving forward and could complicate projects already in progress.
But many residents believe this standard is a good thing for the community, and should be how the city continues with all other development projects. They argue that developers are also changing standards by seeking to rezone the area. A change in zoning laws creates a drastic switch in the type structures that will be permitted. It doesn’t end with the development in question.
This is something neighboring Gowanus has been fighting as well. Like Crown Heights, developers have big plans for the area of Gowanus, but in order to make it happen, a rezoning of the neighborhood must be passed. The idea to rezone a massive portion of the borough has been in the works for years, but only recently has it begun to be pushed through ULURP. It’s a large feat too: 80 blocks are included in the proposal which would increase building heights to between 22 and 30 stories and weaken the affordable housing mandate. Boyd was present at a March 24 panel discussion about the plan hosted by Voices of Gowanus.
There are a lot of reasons why many locals believe the Gowanus rezoning is a bad idea, which were brought up during the meeting. Experts weighed in on the harmful environmental factors at play, including plans to build a school and a bulk of the affordable housing on highly toxic land. Advocates also argued that the rezoning and new structures would get in the way of canal clean-up and there were also the dangers of building in a hazardous flood zone.
“That canal water has been condemned to be a repository of toxins and residuals, against its will. And it has been forced into that kind of indentured servitude” said Maureen Koetz, an environmental expert also a part of the rezoning discussion panel. “The entire Red Hook area and a good part of Owl’s Head, which is where Alicia is facing some of the developers grab on air and water, they are all overloaded right now.”
For both Crown Heights and Gowanus, the challenge of going up against big developers to preserve sunlight, housing or other aspects of their community is a big one. But, as Alicia Boyd has shown, these neighborhoods are worth fighting for.
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