.

Update: Big Trouble in Little Gowanus?

A new property from the Lightstone Group at 363-365 Bond St. will introduce 700 residential units to the area, with seemingly little input from local officials.


Update: This article has been edited from its original version to include information provided by a spokesperson for the Lightstone Group, further detailing project specifics. 

***

A block-wide rental building has been proposed at the old Toll Brothers project site that would nearly double the number of residential units and rise, at its highest point, to 12 stories. All this, with seemingly little input from community officials despite sitting on top of a Superfund site.

On August 23, the Lightstone Group gave an informal presentation to Brooklyn Community Board 6 on their plans for taking over the site at 363-365 Bond St. on the Gowanus Canal. The land was initially rezoned in 2009 for a housing development proposed by the Toll Brothers. That project—at the time received with mixed protests from the neighborhood—was for a 447-unit rental building.

But according to the Department of City Planning, under certain circumstances approvals for ‘minor’ modifications can be granted to previously approved projects without further formal public review.

“As a matter of long-standing practice, applications for ‘minor’ modifications are referred to the affected Community Board for its review and recommendations,” said the Department of City Planning in a statement released to Patch, adding that no hearing or recommendation is actually required, but the City Planning Commission takes any recommendations the Community Board makes into account.

There’s just one problem. Despite the “long-standing practice” referred to by the DCP, neither Community Board 6 members nor the Councilmember’s office have witnessed ‘minor’ modifications precedents in Brooklyn or Manhattan before.

Councilmember Brad Lander subsequently wrote a letter to DCP asking for written clarification of minor-modifications protocol.

Lander concedes that he comes to this issue with a bias: When the site was rezoned in 2009, he did not support the Toll Brothers “spot rezoning.” 

“The Gowanus Canal area needs a comprehensive plan,” Lander said. “Such a plan must take into account the cleanup of the Canal, a genuine mixed-use framework that balances industrial retention, open space, mixed-income housing, and appropriate retail and long-term infrastructure investments that enhance the Gowanus Canal area as a model for sustainability.”

The project may include all of those things, he said, he just has no way of knowing without seeing a formal proposal.

For their part, Lightstone Group has stated publicly that they intend to include affordable as well as market-rate housing, as well as “promising to fund and maintain an esplanade along the canal and purchase a brand new bulkhead that would keep toxins from land out of the canal,” Lightstone spokesman Ethan Geto told DNAinfo.com.

Bulkheads are important, seeing as the new project is much larger than the Toll Brothers’ original. But a representative of Lightstone Group has noted that "even though the Lightstone project will increase the number of units by 253, it will not increase the number of residents proportionately," Geto told Patch. 

"The Toll project was intended to be luxury condos with a high proportion of two- and three-bedroom units marketed to families; the Lightstone project is an all-rental project that features a much higher proportion of studios and one-bedroom units. Therefore, many of the Toll apartments would have housed families of 3-6 people; many of the Lightstone units will be occupied by 1-2 tenants."

The Department of City Planning provided Patch with further explanation of the meaning behind 'minor' modifications classification:

“In the case of the Toll Brothers special permit,” DCP said, “the waivers granted in 2009 relate to height and setback, yard, and court requirements. Lightstone's proposed modifications eliminate the need for two of these waivers (height and setback and courts) and do not change the waiver granted with respect to rear yards.”

Lightstone does, however, propose other changes to the project site plan and drawings, that are unrelated to waivers, DCP noted. These include: variations in the base heights, building heights—of the three buildings, one will be twelve stories, one will be eight stories and one will be six stories—and footprints of portions of the buildings, relocating parking entrances, changes to the location and design of the open space, and changes to the number of residential units and size of non-residential portions of the proposed development. 

“While these changes do not involve waivers, they include changes which are not the type of slight adjustments that can be considered to be in substantial compliance with the current approval and drawings,” stated the DCP representative.

Hence, "Lightstone’s planned development is deemed a Minor Modification by City Planning," stated Geto. "The new plan stays 100% within the zoning envelope and has the same square footage as approved in the Toll Brothers’ ULURP and so conforms to the overall applicable zoning."

While District Manager Craig Hammerman stated at the CB6 general meeting that he could not comment on the issue without seeing the formal proposal, he acknowledged that there is general unease that the emergence of ‘minor’ modifications processes could become a new way for projects to bulldoze into the Gowanus Canal area with little oversight.

Perhaps they are already beginning to.

Almost directly across the canal from the 363-365 Bond St. site, an old warehouse was purchased for $7 million just last week. In that case, philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz threw down for the lot located at 322 Third Avenue to become the future home of his nonprofit, the Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation.

“The foundation plans to develop the site as an art center for the local artistic community where they can create and exhibit their arts,” said Maureen Connelly, a spokesperson for the not-for-profit organization in an interview with The Commercial Observer.

While that particular addition sounds like a boon to the neighborhood and the many artists that currently reside there, it is important to note that the lot was only a portion of a previously larger deal.

According to the Observer, “After the sale of the powerhouse to Mr. Rechnitz’s foundation, Africa Israel USA [the previous owner] closed the sale of an adjacent property which was originally part of the same residential project. An undisclosed buyer paid approximately $9 million for the industrial building at 420 and 430 Carroll Street.”

What that new project will bring to Gowanus remains to be seen.

Robert September 18, 2012 at 01:05 PM
I have no doubt that no matter if the development's plans are good or bad the NIMBY and anti-development (anti 1%) crowd will start so many law suits that by the time the project gets built (if it ever does) it will be a worthless ugly money looser that will be a true blight to the neighborhood (a la Barkley and the rest of Ratner's project)...Then they will blame the developer and say see what these awful rich people did to your neighborhood..
Michael Brown September 18, 2012 at 02:07 PM
It's been a long time since I've commented on anything here, but this will be sure to spur some comments, so I thought I should get a jump and correct some things. All that happened here is someone bought a site from someone else, slightly modified their approved plans ("minor"), and was kind enough to present those modifications to the Community Board. Although I agree with Councilman Lander that spot rezoning is wrong (and of dubious legality), the fact is that these approvals and this rezoning are already done. Additionally: 1) No building is proposed. It was APPROVED over a year ago, and rezoned years before that. 2) Affordable housing is not intended; it is REQUIRED. Lightstone has already entered into an agreement with the Fifth Avenue Committee to manage said affordable units. 3) The new building will create retail and community facility spaces, which, although temporarily displacing businesses for construction, will ultimately result in additional space for businesses to occupy. 4) Almost all zoning ordinances have minor modifications provisions. Whether it is a conditional use, special permit, variance or ULURP approval, in almost every single municipality, minor correction/variation/addition provisions exist. 5) This project does not sit on top of a Superfund site. The canal is the Superfund site, not the land.
Joseph September 18, 2012 at 04:20 PM
Their "slight modification" to the plans increases the number of units more than 50%. And yes, the Toll Brothers plans were preposterously approved already, by the city planning equivalent of a kangaroo court. What has happened since then is the EPA has made quite clear to anyone who wants to see the evidence-- visit their Gowanus Superfund site-- that the canal is in even worse shape than feared. And to say this project doesn't sit upon a Superfund site is splitting hairs. This is a terrible, terrible idea, and I for one don't want developers blithely digging into toxic land with little to no oversight when I live with young children just up the street.
Frank September 18, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Just what we need...more million dollar condos and the kind of people who live in them.
Michelle September 18, 2012 at 05:41 PM
I think Joseph touched on the most important point! Will building large structure so close to the canal disturb the soil and emit more toxins?? The health of our children and famies is the most important issue here. We have enough cancer causing agents surrounding us! Maybe someone else can provide more info on this matter?.....
Michael Brown September 18, 2012 at 05:55 PM
Number of units increased...but total floor area not. Smaller units are more affordable too, which should be a benefit as well. If it is a terrible, terrible idea, that is fine. They will fail, and someone will come in, foreclose and turn it into something more affordable. Or they will succeed. Who knows? It's not our money, so I find it hard to criticize someone taking a big chance. Your comment about oversight is odd (there is another, from Michelle, below). Who should oversee the project? The City? The State? The Feds? They will all have to have input and conduct inspections on the site, given the overlapping jurisdictions and bulkhead work. So where is it that you feel oversight is lacking or potentially could be?
Michael Brown September 18, 2012 at 05:56 PM
These are not condos, they are rentals, and smaller rentals at that.
Joanna Prisco (Editor) September 18, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Update: This article has been edited from its original version to include additional information provided by a spokesperson for the Lightstone Group, further detailing project specifics. To Michelle's question: I have inquired how Lightstone is working with environmental agencies and will produce a follow-up story when that information becomes available.
Michael September 19, 2012 at 05:46 PM
What about the 1,000 more subway riders on an already overcrowded and tp infrequent train, the additional children attending an overcrowded and underfunded school, the additional sewage feeding into an already overflowing sewage and drainage system?
Sara September 19, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Yeah this is kind of a bummer....
Lorraine September 27, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Michael hit the nail on the head. Anyone who tries to take the F into Manhattan during rush hour knows this is a very, very bad idea. As far as the sewage issue, I shudder to think about it.
Joanna Prisco (Editor) September 27, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Just a reminder to all who are interested: CB6 is meeting to review the plans tonight at 6:45 p.m. at the P.S. 32 Auditorium, 317 Hoyt Street (between Union/President Streets). I have gotten word that some concerned neighborhood groups such as Save Gowanus will be in attendance to express concerns over scale, how the influx of so many new residents will impact transportation and nearby schools, as well as whether construction along the canal will disturb the toxins in the Superfund site.
ANONYMOUS October 09, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Michael....you get it...

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