Gowanus zoning opponents file injunction as developers begin pile-driving

On June 15, 421-a exemption expires

June 9, 2022 Raanan Geberer
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Voice of Gowanus, a community group that has been fighting against the city’s rezoning plan for the Gowanus neighborhood, has filed an injunction to prevent developers from creating “facts on the ground” as the June 15 deadline for the 421-a tax credit fast approaches.

The 421-a tax exemption is a property tax exemption that is given to real estate developers who build new multifamily buildings in New York City. The exemption lasts for about 15 to 25 years, and in return, all new housing developments must include between 25 and 30 percent affordable units. 

The state legislature has allowed the program to expire on June 15, leaving its future in limbo. Developers say the program is essential for developing affordable housing, but critics — including the Voice of Gowanus — call it a “developer giveaway.”

The Voice of Gowanus says that some developers have driven piles and poured foundations “without proper safety precautions or oversight” to meet the June 15 deadline. 

On June 7, the group, represented by Richard J. Lippes, Esq., petitioned in Kings County Supreme Court for a preliminary injunction “to maintain the status quo .. and to avoid continuing construction in the rezoned area of the Gowanus community.”

The organization has also started a petition drive and wrote an open letter to elected officials, including Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and Council Members Shahana Hanif and Lincoln Restler, asking for a stop-work order to be put in place. VOG, in its letter, identified the site of the pile-driving as the Public Place site on Smith Street between Luquer Street and Nelson Street.

According to VOG, “(federal) Environmental Protection Agency officials have repeatedly questioned the city’s plan to build housing and a school at this location, given the risk of toxic vapors from contamination soaked deep into the soil.”

The rezoning plan would add more than 8,000 new apartments, 3,000 designated as affordable for low-and middle income residents, to an 82-block area. It was passed in 2021 with heavy support from then-Councilmember and current Comptroller Brad Lander and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio. Also on board were several other local officials and community groups such as the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Part of the rezoning plan called for a comprehensive interior renovation of NYCHA’s Gowanus and Wyckoff Houses as well as improvements to the Old Stone House and the Pacific Library. The NYCHA improvements, in particular, are credited with getting some officials who were previously undecided to support the plan.

Voice of Gowanus was unimpressed by the city’s approval. Around the same time, the group retained attorney Lippes, who has handled environmental cases in 20 states, including representing plaintiffs in the famed Love Canal case.

A bridge over the Gowanus Canal, showing how it would look after rezoning. Photo courtesy of Dept. of City Planning

The fight over the rezoning plan has been going on for quite a few years. In September 2021, for example, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Assemblymember Simon called on the city to re-do the environmental impact study for the rezoning in the wake of Hurricane Ida. They claimed the study did not adequately take into account the impact of climate change in Gowanus or combined sewer flow into the canal, according to a Brooklyn Eagle article at the time. 

“Gowanus is not just any old neighborhood. It has a unique and complex set of dangerous toxic pollution, flooding and sewage overflow problems that have plagued our most vulnerable populations for decades,” Katia Kelly of Voice of Gowanus was quoted as saying by the Eagle last year. 

“We tried to warn city officials they were getting it deeply wrong—as did the EPA and Congressmember Nydia Velazquez—but the city refused to listen. Instead they sold out to developers, putting thousands of people unjustly at risk.”

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