Big Trouble in Little Gowanus?

In the Press

Big Trouble in Little Gowanus?

Joanna Prisco
Carroll Gardens Patch

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

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.

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