Planning via Zoom: Legal Scrutiny for Pandemic Realities in New York City

The question of whether a public review process conducted by Zoom is sufficient to approve a sweeping rezoning plan is a matter of no small legal concern in New York City.

February 24, 2021, 5:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Brooklyn, New York City

Full Prime Raw / Shutterstock

Rebecca Baird-Remba reports the details of a lawsuit that threatens to derail the Gowanus Neighborhood Planning Study, alleging that Zoom meetings don't allow for a sufficient public review process.

The stakes in the lawsuit are substantial. "The new zoning would cover 80 blocks between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, and it would pave the way for 8,200 new apartments, 700,000 square feet of commercial space and 251,000 square feet of community facilities on land that is now largely zoned for industrial uses," according to Baird-Remba. The plan had been stuck in COVID limbo for the first half of 2020.

Now a lawsuit by the local community group Voice of Gowanus has the planning effort stuck in legal limbo.

Voice of Gowanus’ lawyer, Jason Zakai, claimed in his court filing that “virtual hearings are simply no substitute for in-person hearings.” And he noted that residents who don’t have access to reliable internet — like those in the New York City Housing Authority’s Gowanus Houses — are not able to participate in online meetings. Essentially, the rezoning should be put on hold until after the pandemic — whenever that might be.

Planners and advocates for the rezoning have pointed out that participation in online hearings have been much higher than the in-person meetings prior to the pandemic.

"An average of 266 people attended three remote meetings last fall, which was nearly double the average attendance of in-person meetings held between 2016 and 2019, according to an affidavit filed by Jonathan Keller, a city planner who has helped develop the rezoning plan for the neighborhood over the past five years. And nothing in the text of the city law prohibits holding public meetings online," reports Baird-Remba.

New York Supreme Court ruled on February 5 that the city needs to guarantee Internet access for low-income residents before certification of the zoning can be permitted. As noted by Baird-Remba, the lawsuit could delay the rezoning past the tenures of the local councilmember and the mayor, who both support the rezoning.

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