Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

It is time to take a few days to concentrate on family and to wrestle with a 20 pound turkey, so I am signing off till Monday.
Wishing all of you a wonderful Thanksgiving with your loved ones. And if you have to travel, please be safe.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Where To From Here?: Notes From Last Night's Final Bridging Gowanus Meeting

Council Member Brad Lander
Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez
Council Member Carlos Menchaca
Councilmember Steve Levin
Charlene Nimmons, President of Wyckoff Gardens Tenants Association
Linda Mariano, member of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus
Gowanus Resident Carl Teitelbaum
Adam, Gowanus Resident
Joseph Alexiou of Gowanus Preservation Society

This past Friday, Council member Brad Lander and Pratt Center For Community Development released the result of Bridging Gowanus, an initiative to "develop a neighborhood framework for the infrastructure and land use plan needed for a safe, vibrant and sustainable Gowanus."
Last night, Lander, together with Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and Council members Carlos Menchaca and Steve Levin, presented the framework to the public.

Bridging Gowanus has been touted as a community driven process that reflects the collective priorities of the community. The 'shared values' reflected in the framework are going to hopefully guide New York City Planning and the De Blasio Administration when a re-zoning plan for Gowanus will be put worth.f

Though groups and organizations like the Fifth Avenue Committee, Gowanus Alliance, Gowanus Dredgers, and Wyckoff Gardens Tenants Association expressed their approval of the framework, quite a few local residents objected to the assertion by Pratt and Lander that many in Gowanus were open to high rises from 8 to 18 stories to achieve the goals set forth by Bridging Gowanus.
The density was determined by a rather leading exercise given to residents at the public meeting in June which asked residents to add two stories to a four story building for every amenity, like school, park or art space, that would be added to the neighborhood. Those who checked off every amenity ended up with 18 story buildings.

"I doubt very much that actual Gowanus residents would like to see buildings of that height", resident Linda Mariano stated during the public comment period  last night.  She asked for a show of hand.  Only three or four people in the audience raised theirs.

Elena Conti of Pratt Institute was quick to explain that  range of height of a hypothetical 8 to 18 stories represents a range of hypothetical height.  "That is NOT a recommendation. [Bridging Gowanus] is a framework.  There is no map.  This is NOT a plan."

Some Gowanus residents expressed deep skepticism about how Bridging Gowanus can influence any future zoning plan.  This is after all, a neighborhood that has seen its fair share of broken promises.
Some residents wanted to know what the next step will be.  They also asked how our politicians will be accountable.
Gowanus resident Adam expressed this doubt best.
"There is a lot of skepticism in this room, built on experience about broken promises and generation after generation of bait-and switch in the City of New York.  There will always be pressure .  There will always be political leverage that belongs to the interest of real estate speculation and development, many of which are represented here tonight and would probably not object to 18-story buildings.  We have a unique moment in which we have progressive leadership representing us, in Brad and his colleagues in the Council, and in the support from our State and Federal representatives.  I guess the question is :  What are the strategies that our representatives are going to use to take this framework and prevent it from being something that just goes to City Planning and they say "yea, 18 stories, that sounds great", and run it through the Council and get our mayor, who supported Lightstone to support this.  Where is our leverage? How is it going to work?"

Elena Conti answered: "If this framework moves forward and the City engages the community, a very thoughtful and detailed  block by block second conversation needs to to take place. Whatever plan eventually comes forth, we need to have those more detailed conversations."

Councilman Brad Lander suggested that it would not have been smart for him and other elected officials to engage the community in a conversation about the future of their neighborhood and then to allow a zoning process that would not take the shared goals into consideration.
He reminded everyone that any re-zoning plan would first need to be approved by the City Council, which defers to the local elected in such matters.

Congressmember Nydia Velázquez added:
"We are trying to be honest, we are trying to be constructive and pro-active and not re-acting to one developer here and one developer there.  When I was told by the Bloomberg administration and the mayor himself to back off on the designation of the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund, I told him and some of the people that were pressuring me,  that I wanted the process to be determined by science and not by the mayor or any developer. I will not lend my support [to Bridging Gowanus]  if I feel in any way that the community's desire and priorities are not reflected in this process.  I can assure you."

In other words, it is important that we keep engaged, ask questions and keep our elected officials accountable.

Have you taken the time to look at the Bridging Gowanus framework?  Where you there last night? What did you think? Do you believe that the community driven process will truly have an impact on City Planning and the deBlasio administration? Let's have a real, unfiltered community conversation about our neighborhood's future.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Vendôme Macaron Bar Opens Pop-Up Shop On Smith Street

Vendôme Macaron Bar just opened a pop-up shop at 233 Smith Street last week, and if you have not been there yet, you better stop in next time you walk past.
Vendôme offers the French meringue confection in a sinfully delicious assortment of flavors and fillings like Venezuelan Chocolate, Passionfruit and Strawberry & Champagne.
(My favorites were Italian Pistachio and Nutella.)
Each macron is $2. A box of 5 is $10.  But don't kid yourself.  Go for the box of 10.  They are that good and you will want to taste all.  And since flavors change daily, you will want/need to go back several time.

The pop-up shop will be open till the end of March, when Vendôme will open in 1 Brooklyn Bridge Park.


It Was Bound To Happen: Lee Brothers Auto Repair Shop Now Development Site

Corner of Smith Street and Third Street, looking North
Lee Brothers Garage at 375 Smith Street
New development at 360 Smith Street, which is located directly across the street from Lee Brothers Garage

Back in early January of this year Lee Brothers Auto and Body Repair shop  at 375 Smith Street at the corner of Third Street in Carroll Gardens was closed "until further notice."  Though the shop reopened a few days later, many residents wondered how long until the one story building housing the garage would be torn down to be developed into residential apartments.  After all, the garage sits on one of the most desirable lots in one of the most coveted neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Well, it would appear that the moment has finally come and that the Lee Brothers are developing the site.  NY YIMBY reported last week that permits for a new mixed-use structure have been filed with NYC Department of Buildings.
NYMBY writes:

The proposed four-story building would include a 3,300-square foot retail space on the ground floor, topped by 11 apartments. The units would be spread over 9,800 square feet of residential space, for an average apartment size of nearly 900 square feet. (Confusingly, the Schedule A filing indicates 12 apartments, or four per floor above the ground level.)

The project would include a sizable amount of parking – 13 spaces – reflecting the increasing wealth necessary to live in new construction in South Brooklyn neighborhoods, as demand rises while supply remains nearly stagnant.

The developer – whose listed phone number was not accepting new calls, and whose email address is invalid – is Jimmy Lee with 375 Smith Street, LLC, and the architect as SHV Designs, led by John C. Haskopoulos.

According to the Carroll Gardens contextual rezoning, which was approved in 2009, the site is in an R6B zone, with a height limit of 50 feet and a commercial overlay fronting Smith Street
The Carroll Gardens community pushed for the contextual re-zoning and height limit in part because of the opposition to 360 Smith Street, the 70 feet building right across the street.

Though the Lee's building is rather run down, it was once the Court Theatre, a neighborhood movie theatre. Some details of its past are still visible on parts of the façade. Here is a link to an old tax photo from 1928 that shows the theatre.
Sometime in the 1940, the structure was changed into a gas station. In the 1980's the pumps were taken out, but the repair garage remained.
More on the building's history can be found here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Of Councilman Brad Lander, Pratt Center For Community Development, And The Final Bridging Gowanus Meeting Next Monday

First Bridging Gowanus meeting, December 2013
Councilman Brad Lander at first Bridging Gowanus meeting in December 2013
Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 2.37.34 PM
NYCity proposed rezoning for Gowanus presented to the community in 2008

Almost exactly a year ago, Councilman Brad Lander convened the first public meeting for Bridging Gowanus, "a series of public meetings to develop a neighborhood framework for the infrastructure and land use plan needed for a safe, vibrant and sustainable Gowanus."
The December 2013 meeting was hosted jointly with State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, and Councilmember Steven Levin. To facilitate the conversation about a shared, sustainable vision for the Gowanus, Councilman Lander had hired and paid Pratt Center for Community Development (not to be confused with Pratt Institute) as consultant in charge of running the planning process.

The community came out in force to participate in that first meeting. Subsequent Bridging Gowanus community meetings in March and June 2014 were equally well attended.

According to Councilman Lander, the end result of the process will be "a community supported blueprint for an environmentally safe, vibrant, and sustainable Gowanus to inform the DeBlasio Administration."

The draft community planning framework from the Gowanus Bridging initiative will be presented by our Councilman at a final meeting this coming Monday, November 24 at 6:30, at PS 32  317 Hoyt St, Brooklyn.

Exactly how this final document will be used is questionable. It is doubtful that the community's wishes will make any difference to the De Blasio administration. Bill De Blasio's record as Councilman in our district, which includes Gowanus, is shameful. He supported the spot re-zoning of two large toxic  manufacturing lots adjacent to the Gowanus Canal to mixed-use to allow residential development, and then lobbied against the US EPA Superfund clean-up of the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal.

It is interesting to note that 'Bridging Gowanus' is not the first time the community is asked to envision the future of the neighborhood. Back in 2007, Pratt Center helped convene Gowanus Summit, "a coalition of civic, housing and community development, manufacturing, and labor groups to establish ground rules for development around the Gowanus Canal."
The summit  "aimed to ensure that new development meets the needs of area residents and sets high standards for local quality of life."

The report prepared by Pratt in October 2007 for Gowanus Summit called for:
-Affordable housing: at least 30% of apartments in developments of over 30 units should be permanently affordable to families at a wide range of incomes. On the city-owned site of the former gasworks on Smith Street, 60% of new housing should be affordable.

-Space for industrial jobs must be preserved.

-Responsible contractors and operators are essential on all large projects: employers that treat their workers fairly, create good job opportunities for local residents, deliver quality construction products, and operate quality developments, without unnecessary harm to the community.

-Respect for community context: While allowing for new development and additional density in the canal area, rezoning must limit out-of-scale development in residential sections of Carroll Gardens.

-Promote the mix of uses that make Gowanus special by establishing a special district designed to enable artisans and light industry and artisans to flourish.
Improve the infrastructure and environmental quality of the Canal and the surrounding area, including a comprehensive storm water management plan. New construction should be held to high standards of environmental performance and take measures to reduce sewage overflows.

Shortly afterwards, in May 2008, the New York City Department of City Planning released its Gowanus Canal Corridor Draft Zoning Proposal.  The agency was ready to push the re-zoning through, though there was much opposition in the community.  Most importantly, City Planning obviously had not incorporated much of what  Gowanus Summit had called for.
The re-zoning was eventually put on hold after the EPA declared the Gowanus Canal a Superfund.

Which brings us back to the present.  "Gowanus Summit" has been renamed "Bridging Gowanus." Pratt Center is earning money a second time to create a nice colorful presentation and interpret what they think the community said, and we have a Councilman who is probably using the process so that he will be able to say that he gave local residents a chance to "have a voice." Once again, the City and the developers long ago decided the future of the Gowanus Community.

Make no mistake.  City Planning, this time under Mayor De Blasio,  is probably ready to step out with a full fledged Gowanus Plan. It most probably will be the same one shown to the community in 2008, just with different graphics. We will be told that City planning 'listened to the wishes of local residents" and we will know that it's a lie.

As Councilman Lander is asking us to convene one last time  for Bridging Gowanus, it behooves all of us to come together and to ask him to put his words into action and to give some power back to the community.
We should all demand a process of validation at the end of Bridging Gowanus.  Is the document really a reflection of what the community envisioned at the meetings?  We should be able to vote to make sure of that.

Bridging Gowanus could be the beginning of so much.  It could be a new forward-thinking, true democratic community planning process. Let's see if Councilman Lander, who prides himself on giving power (and a vote) back to the people through Participatory Budgeting, is courageous enough  to give his Gowanus constituents a real voice.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Moment In Time: They Came From Red Hook

They made their way along the Gowanus. 
"We Came from Red Hook,"  one of them responded when asked.

Gowanus Community To Lightstone Group Regarding Gowanus Project: "You Can't Give Us Enough Sympathy For What We Are Going Through"

Scott Avram,  Lightstone Group Senior Vice President of Development
Lee Weintraub, Landscape architect for Lightstone Group
Community Board 6 Manager Craig Hammerman
Councilmember Brad Lander
It was standing room only at Mary Star of the Sea's community room last night as Lightstone Group representatives updated local residents on the construction of their mega development at 363-365 Bond Street between Carroll Street and Second Street on the banks of the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal.

The meeting was a small concession to the community, which had to deal with months-long pounding noise and vibration from pile driving during Phase One of the project at 365 Bond Street.   Local residents made numerous calls to local elected officials and to various agencies to point out all kinds of violations at the construction site this past the summer. Many complaints were made to the Department of Health by neighbors who were reporting dizziness and headaches from fumes escaping from the Brownfield site after construction crews disturbed the contamination in the ground.

It is important to note that the NYC Department of Buildings, which had been asked to send representation, did not do so.

As the start of Phase Two at 363 Bond Street is imminent, Lightstone was willing to answer questions from residents and to listen to their complaints last night. But first, the community needed to sit through a presentation.

According to Scott Avram,  Lightstone Senior Vice President of Development, completed work at the 700 unit development site includes:
-environmental Brownfield  remediation at 365 Bond Street under the supervision of NY State Department of Environmental Conservation
-foundation pile driving at 365 Bond Street
-initial foundation work at 365 Bond Street
-Sidewalk bridge and fence installation.

Upcoming work includes:
-remaining foundation work at 365 Bond Street
-Superstructure work at 365 Bond Street
-Brownfield site remediation at 363 Bond Street
-Test piles at 363 Bond Street
-Surveying and layout.

Avram acknowledged that the company had gotten complaints from the community regarding noise and vibration from pile driving, idling trucks at 6 AM in the morning on nearby residential blocks, after- hour and week-end work at the site, and fumes from  petroleum product that was being dug up during the environmental remediation and then trucked through the neighborhood.

"Your many concerns brought forth this meeting, " Avram said.  However,  he was very quick to add that during construction of Phase 1, the surrounding neighborhood had been monitored by an independent third party engineering firm, using air and vibration monitoring devices.
He also pointed out that the Department of Buildings had approved Saturday construction hours from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Avram blamed the early morning idling trucks on third party contractors. He blamed a homeless man living under the scaffolding at Second Street for the pile-up of trash. As for the after-hour work reported by residents, it had been an" isolated, unavoidable incident caused by mechanical issues during a cement pour".  It seemed that the Lightstone representative had an excuse for every inconvenience, problem and violation at the site. 

As for potential  damage to homes adjacent to the building site, one resident expressed dismay with Lightstone's responsiveness.
"We don't trust you in the year you have been building this thing. We have not gotten a straight answer about anything. We have gotten lots of denials, lots of  'oh, its within the limits', 'oh, DoB approved it", or  "it's all according to code", the resident told the developer's representatives.  "We have nothing from Lightstone  that says that you will take responsibility," he added.

Avram's response? "We can just keep our eyes and just build the job.  It's been approved by the Buildings Department. " Later he added: "We don't have to monitor, we don't have to survey.  No one is forcing us.  We are doing the best we can to answer some of your questions.  We are building a big project We are trying to do it quickly.  We are trying to be as unintrusive as possible.  We are building a big building.  We understand that it is loud and noisy."

One Gowanus resident probably expressed the feeling of the community best.  She said: You have taken on a very controversial project. I want to very much appreciate your efforts to address our concerns  You said before that you could just put your head down and not do any monitoring. I just wanted to say that, to me, it's a moral responsibility that you are taking responsibility, that you are looking at these things. And I don't think that you can underestimate how much concern, upset and anxiety this has caused.  I don't think you can give us enough sympathy for what we are going through.  You are going to have your buildings, make your money and cut off the sky.  We are going to be left with the results."

If you live near the Lightstone site and need to report a problem,  please call 311, email Community Board 6 at and call the developer's hotline at 646 362 1500.