Opponents of Gowanus rezoning plan hire heavy-hitter environmental lawyer

October 14, 2021 Raanan Geberer
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The Voice of Gowanus, a neighborhood coalition opposing the Gowanus Rezoning Plan, has retained lawyer Richard J. Lippes, who has handled environmental cases in 20 states — including representing plaintiffs in the famed Love Canal case.

Even though the City Planning Commission approved the Rezoning Plan several weeks ago, the Voice of Gowanus has vowed “to end the legally non-compliant and premature Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning Plan.”

In addition, on Tuesday, neighborhood residents, stakeholders and others testified in front of the City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, as a City Council vote is next.

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This writer heard testimony from about 25 people, and while both points of view were represented, those who opposed the plan were definitely in the majority.

The rezoning plan received a setback last month when U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (D-Brooklyn Heights-DUMBO-Cobble Hill-Carroll Gardens-Gowanus-Boerum Hill-Park Slope) held a press conference on the banks of the Gowanus Canal and called on the city to redo the environmental impact statement for the rezoning plan in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Borough President Eric Adams, likely the city’s next mayor, approved the plan in late August, but with a long list of recommendations, including making sure the affordable housing would be truly affordable and making sure the planned 8,000 apartments would not overwhelm the local sewer system.

In its release about the hiring of attorney Lippes, the Voice of Gowanus headlined that it was “considering multiple new [law]suits.”

“All the people of Gowanus deserve due process, especially those whose affordable housing will be at greater risk from harmful climate change effects and contamination, said Linda LaViolette, co-chair of the Voice of Gowanus outreach committee and longtime resident of the area. “Continued backups and overflows, as well as the industrial contamination of a Superfund Megasite must first be dealt with before luxury tower developers are again allowed to cherry-pick parcels, and again overwhelm a diverse, mixed-use neighborhood that has borne the brunt of festering toxicity for too long.”

Advocates for the plan, however, were also busy sending out press statements of their own. For example, Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, said, “Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC) sees the Gowanus rezoning as a crucial opportunity to deliver affordable housing to a neighborhood that desperately needs it. In doing so, the plan will also advance necessary citywide goals for fair housing and racial equity.”

At the Council hearing, which was streamed live, those against the rezoning, the majority of whom were neighborhood residents, stressed the project’s environmental impact, its likely effect on quality of life, and climate change. Those who were in favor of it stressed affordable housing and hiring of area residents. And, as in every hearing, there were some who testified using near-incomprehensible bureaucratic and planning jargon.

As mentioned above, those who opposed the plan were in the majority. For example, Tamara Staples, an artist, said the plan didn’t consider the impact on artists’ studio space and rent. As rent for studios increases beyond affordability, she said, she and others have been “chasing studio space around the city.”

Debbie Stoller talked about how climate change has made the environmental impact worse. For example, she said, after Hurricane Ida, “raw sewage backed up into people’s basements, and we’ve never seen that before.” The city’s environmental impact statement, she said, used outdated rainfall data from 2008.

Chris Reo, a local building superintendent, said he originally favored the plan, but now opposed it because of what happened in the aftermath of Ida. Many of his tenants, he said, told him their apartments had been flooded, some with excrement and urine from the overtaxed sewer system.

Another neighborhood resident, responding to the contention that Gowanus is a wealthy, mainly white neighborhood that needs the diversity that the affordable housing would bring, said, “It’s a load of crap that this neighborhood is any more rich or exclusive than any other part of Brooklyn.”

On the other hand, Danny Salas, citing the city’s need for affordable housing, asked, “How is this even a debate?” He urged the City Council to approve the project.

And Jay Marcus, housing director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, which is one of the partners in the rezoning project, said on the environmental issue, “We are excited about the opportunity to clean up the space. We want to do the brownfield remediation project in a very open way.” He also touted the “local hiring aspects” of the project.

Commenting on Voice of Gowanus and other opponents, he said, “we want to keep them at the table.”

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