Almost overnight, many aspects of our economic and civic life went virtual last spring as the city and state responded to the COVID-19 crisis. While it was late getting up and running, the city's all-important land-use review process - the way the city considers proposals intended to create affordable housing construction, space for new jobs, and infrastructure investment - joined the world of Zoom in September.
This new reality, however imperfect, has without question made the land-use process more democratic and transparent, resulting in greater turnout for hearings that used to take place for many hours on busy weeknights, often in hard-to-reach and cramped locations. Now, New Yorkers previously shut out - frail elderly, parents with childcare responsibilities, those unable to reach a meeting due to disabilities or lack of mass transit access, for example -can make their views known with the touch of a phone or laptop.
For example, more than 350 people joined a virtual hearing in October for the city's planned rezoning of the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn, which would create around 8,000 new apartments (about 3,000 of those permanently affordable), scores of new jobs, workforce opportunities and beautiful new public open spaces along a rejuvenated Gowanus Canal, among other benefits. This was a far larger turnout than any in-person hearing on the rezoning, and shows that newly engaged New Yorkers are taking advantage of the opportunity to be part of the process.
There's been a similar uptick in public participation in virtual hearings concerning projects across the city. BetaNYC Executive Director Noel Hidalgo told the Brooklyn Paper in December that his group had seen several community board meetings last fall with more than 1,000 attendees - a number unheard of forthe in-person format.
"On an online meeting, I can hear all of the participation," Hidalgo said. "I feel more informed because I am able to hear all the various comments and engagement." Brooklyn Community Board 15 s chair noted in the story near-perfect member attendance since the onset of the pandemic. Many who've attended virtual hearings may have noticed a phenomenon unusual in land-use debates. The hearings give people on all sides an opportunity to speak without being shouted down or interrupted. And they ensure that no one loses the chance to be heard because people who lack digital access can still express their views by calling in or submitting a written statement.
Despite this, opponents of the Gowanus plan have filed an absurd lawsuit that seeks to block further consideration of the rezoning. They claim, without evidence, that the lack of in-person hearings prevents full and fair community participation.
Let's be clear: What the lawsuit really seeks is to deprive the public of its say and, when the need for affordable housing couldn't be more pressing, stop the plan altogether. Perhaps most rich is that those seeking to block affordable housing in a neighbourhood with an average household income in the six figures are cloaking their NIMBYism in appeals to ensure low-income New Yorkers have a say.
To be sure, anti-development activists did lose some things when hearings went virtual: the ability to shout down and intimidate their neighbours, interrupt presenters explaining a complex topic, and turn hearings into guerrilla theatre. They cannot use their tool kit of distractions on Zoom to obfuscate truths that are inconvenient to their ideology.
Most troubling is that this meritless lawsuit could do significant harm to our city by running out the clock on the mayor's term and putting the Gowanus plan in jeopardy. A court ruling invalidating the virtual process would also cast a cloud over decisions made during the past year by all of the city's land-use agencies and put planned rezonings elsewhere, including the city's proposal to create roughly 800 affordable apartments in Soho, at risk.
More than ever, our city needs new development, and the affordable housing, tax revenues and jobs that come with it. Putting a year of land-use decisions into limbo would be a gratuitous body blow to the city's economy as it works to recover from the pandemic - all at the behest of a tiny group of anti-development activists.
As the plaintiffs surely know, their lawsuit is nothing more than an effort to manufacture a nonexistent problem to limit public participation and avoid losing through a free and fair process. (Sound familiar, voter fraud fantasists?)
The court should see through this sophistry. At its April 9 hearing - which, fittingly, will itself be virtual - the judiciary should make a strong statement about the democratic advantages of virtual hearings.
Previously published in in the New York Daily News on April 6, 2021.
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