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At first, it seemed like something the whole neighborhood could get behind.
The downzoning of a 13-block stretch of Grand Street, which went into effect after the City Council voted it up in March, was supposed to help placate a community anxious about overdevelopment and gentrification after the 2005 waterfront rezoning.
Designed to preserve the low-rise character of the neighborhood, the plan limited building heights along the stretch to 50 feet; prior to the downzoning, there was no limits on building heights.
The plan received the approval of Community Board 1, Borough President Marty Markowtiz and the City Planning Commission with little to no vocal opposition, save for that of the developer of an unpopular 16-story tower at 227 Grand Street at Driggs Avenue.
But the week before it came to the City Council for a vote, a group of residents and property owners calling themselves the Grand Street Homeowners and Business Association (GSHBA) emerged to oppose the downzoning.
Claiming to include 100 of the 254 property owners encompassed in the downzoning, the group complained they were not properly notified about the rezoning and were therefore precluded from voicing their objections.
They claimed the rezoning would cost some property owners millions of dollars in planned developments and home additions now prohibited by the stricter zoning rules.
All totaled, they estimated the downzoning caused the loss of $120 million in sellable land. (This figure applies to the whole rezoned area, not just on their properties.)
In a March 24 meeting, just two days before the plan was enacted into law by the City Council, they implored Councilmember Diana Reyna to ask for a one-month postponement of the Council vote.
“It would have allowed us the opportunity to get our voices heard. It would have given us a month to get a discourse going and let it be known that the community at large opposes this,” said Nelson Cuesta, one of the group’s most vocal members whose plans to develop a lot at 186 Grand Street were affected by the downzoning.
At the meeting, the group produced a written agreement from the developer of the 227 Grand Street tower that would have limited its height to six-stories in exchange for scrapping the downzoning.
But Reyna, pointing to the contrast between the last-minute request and what she said was two years of near-unanimous support for the rezoning, refused push for a postponement.
“I had not become aware of their opposition until the day before the Council subcommittee vote [on April 19],” she said.
“It was not an appropriate moment to just vote ‘No’ on a process that had taken two years. Thousands of families were waiting for this rezoning.”
Two days after the initial meeting, Reyna and the rest of the Council approved the rezoning. Shortly thereafter, Department of Buildings officials issued stop-work requests to the 14 under-construction projects in the area.
But the GSHBA has not rested. A little more than two weeks ago, many members showed up at the Community Board 1 meeting and spoke emotionally about their plight.
“They diminished the value of everyone’s property without notifying anybody about it,” said Mike Shlegel, who planned on building a six-story building with a nursery school in the ground floor of a now vacant lot at 161 Roebling Street, but now must radically alter his plans.
“There was absolutely no notification,” Schlegel continued.
Currently, at least two property owners on Grand Street have filed a motion of intent to sue the city, according to Cuesta.
Cuesta said the group is considering a number of recourses, “but a class-action suit is not off the table.”
For her part, Reyna is trying to organize a meeting between property owners and various city agencies to hash out potential variances, but says these agencies have refused to meet until all litigation on the matter is off the table.
Under city law regulating Uniform Land Use Review (ULURP) proceedings, notification of any public hearing on a ULURP matter must be published in The City Record for the five days leading up to the public hearing.
Community Boards are encouraged, but not required, to publicize hearings by printing written notices in local newspapers and distributing flyers.
Ward Dennis, chair of the Community Board 1 ULURP Committee and a proponent of the downzoning, said, “For them to claim there was no notification is just not true.”
Dennis cited the efforts of CB 1 District Manager Gerald Esposito, who went door-to-door distributing flyers to the area covered in the rezoning the day before the Board’s January 8 scheduled public hearing on the matter.
“The Board went well beyond any sort of minimum requirement for notification. Gerry put flyers in doors and Laundromats. We reached out specifically to local groups like El Puente and Los Sures to make sure they let people know about it,” Dennis said.
But on the day of that January 8 hearing, only one speaker spoke out against the rezoning: Ken Fisher, the area’s former City Councilmember who is the project lawyer for the tower at 227 Grand Street.
Cuesta, the GSHBA member, said he showed up at the hearing and tried to sign up to speak.
“I was told [by a Board member] that I got there too late to speak, but that this was the beginning of the process and I would have plenty of other chances,” he said.
“I didn’t follow up on it because supposedly there would be notification and supposedly there would be other meetings where I could speak out. I just said, ‘OK, fine.’”
Dennis claims that Cuesta’s failure to follow up was his own fault.
“He of all people can’t be sitting here saying, ‘I didn’t know.’ He knew, but he didn’t tell anybody. Nobody said anything until right before the City Council hearing. At that point, it was too late to make any modifications,” he said.
Dennis said that there were public hearings on the matter when it went before Borough President Marty Markowitz and then the City Planning Commission.
“Of course I have sympathy for them, but the process has been done. There have been multiple public hearings about this but nobody came forward,” he said.
Reyna sounded a similar theme: the onus of knowing about the downzoning and spreading the word about it should fall mostly on the property owners.
“There’s a reason this is a multi-leveled process. Property owners doing construction projects hire paid professionals
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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