Thursday, June 09, 2011

"Whole Fools": CB6 Says 'Yes' To Gowanus Whole Foods Variance


Peter Fleming, chair of CB6's Land Use Committee

One is often stunned by how ill prepared some Community Board 6 members are to vote on important issues brought in front of them. It often seems as if decisions are made with the barest minimum of knowledge or consideration. Take for example the question of whether Whole Foods should be granted a variance of the New York City's Zoning Resolution to build a 56,000 s.f. food store in an M2-1 zoning district, which currently only allows them to construct a 10,000 s.f. store.

It was the members' task at last night's general meeting to discuss Whole Foods' claim that the site's unique physical conditions creates financial hardship and therefore, the food retailer should be granted the necessary variance.
The conditions cited by Whole Foods are:
* that the site is on a conglomeration of urban fill unsuitable for load bearing
* that they have to protect the site's landmarked Coignet building during any pile construction work
*that the site is low-lying and in a flood-prone area
*and that there is substantial grade change across the lot.

However, these claims were not discussed during last night's meeting or at last week's CB6 Land-Use Committee meeting. A few board members brought this up, but most of the others seemed more concerned about what type of heirloom tomatoes would be sold and how the parking lot would drain.
The board simply ignored the five findings* required for such a variance by the Board Of Standards And Appeals (BSA), which will ultimately decide on the matter.
Instead, CB6 members discussed superfluous concerns unrelated to the BSA variance application.
Had the Board seriously debated the validity of Whole Foods' assertions, they would have had to agree that the company created its own hardship. Whole Foods is claiming hardship seven years after assembling a building site by purchase and lease of several properties in a zoning district unsuitable for their purposes. They also:
* willingly purchased the polluted site in a dense industrial area
*next to a polluted canal into which human waste is discharged every time it rains heavily
*which lies in the 100 year flood plain and is therefore prone to flooding
*has a high water table
*has substantial grade changes across the lot
and most importantly...
*does not, by law, allow for Whole Foods' intended use.

The Board did discuss Whole Foods' insufficient traffic study, which covered only a limited area. And yes, the Board spoke briefly about the impact the store's construction may have on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund clean-up of the Gowanus Canal.
But CB6 failed to come up with any plausible reasons for why Whole Foods should be granted a variance, when the site could be used for an as-of-right development.

At the end, the Board voted 30 to 2 to approve the variance.
Of course, the Board is strictly advisory. The BSA will make the final determination.

* BSA's 5 Necessary Findings
1. Unique Physical Conditions
2.Reasonable return on the property
3.Altering essential character of the neighborhood
4.Self imposed hardship
5. Minimun variance for relief.


anonymous said...

Yes, it was truly astounding to see how little or how superficially one has to be be engaged in the issues to be a board member and allowed to vote on an issue that will impact the community as greatly as the Whole Foods project will. Hopefully the BSA will see things more clearly. I wouldn't have even cared that the vote went as it did if I had heard the issues brought up and discussed with some integrity.

Michael Brown said...

Decisions and discourse such as this demonstrate why the Community Board should continue to only have an advisory role. To ask people with no appreciation, understanding or experience of the land use process to vote on a decision such as this will only result in decisions such as this, or the "Responsible Development Policy".

Anonymous said...

There's a reason most of these people are unemployed/retired.

Anonymous said...

Superfund cleanup is now required of all Gowanus property so a BSA variance will be needed for any owner (new or old) to realize a reasonable return. CB6 has a role to advise if this use is a positive addition to the community - not to determine the BSA findings. Alternate uses to generate a reasonable return could have a more negative impact. For example, the former Toll property will likely need to be developed to a greater density because of superfund cleanup mandates.

Gaylor Smythe said...

I keep hearing about this need for Gowanus property (most of it zoned for industry still) to be developed to a greater density because of Superfund - and I am trying to follow this. But it only sounds like scare tactics. First and foremost, the Superfund process will take 12 years. Cleanup is tantamount before any other discussion can even possibly take place. If you bought property along the Gowanus and were hoping to turn some quick bucks for residential super-size development, Superfund reality rained on your dreams big-time. But you were trying to make money on people living on toxic land, along a toxic waterway. There was never a promise made to speculators that you would be able to build residential condos or whatever along the Gowanus. So this talk about now needing to build even more densely makes absolutely no sense. You DO NOT HAVE to build your housing densely or otherwise along the canal. 1. It is a flood zone. 2. In a hurricane evacuation area. 3. along a canal with CSO's. 4. We need the kind of zoning it currently has.

Michael Brown said...

The discourse in the comments FURTHER demonstrates the inability of the public to grasp land use issues. Density has no place in this discussion. WF could have built a building approximately 10 times larger than they propose, if they chose to, as of right! Frankly, given how scarce industrial real estate is becoming, that may ultimately prove to be the economically superior choice.

So, debate the merits of economic hardship, debate whether or not there is no other viable use for the property (there is, denser), debate whether or not this is self-created (completely), but don't bring density into the discussion, because it completely undermines the validity of an argument, since it is completely irrelevant to this particular discussion.

Anonymous said...

The BSA has to determine if the superfund has created a hardship. The community board decides if the use is in harmony with the neighborhood.

Current reports show that cleanup costs will now be 4-5 times what was anticipated prior to superfund (escalation delays and more intensive remediation) and that will allow other Gowanus property owners to seek variances - which may increase density and trafffic models, evaluate air quality impacts, etc.

Mrs. G said...

"Whole F-o-o-l-s", a typo???Brilliant!!

Katia said...

A voluntary typo.. those are sometimes the best, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Way to go CB6.
Begs the question: Who precisely, are they watching out for?

And WHY???!!! do we need them?

I think it is time for a revolt.

Anonymous said...

Why did the CB6 members vote this in?
We can only speculate, and we should.
CB6 is not a group that represents the community. It is a group of people appointed by the Borough President and City Councilman. As we learned when the BP office dismissed CB6 members who brought up questions about community problems with the BP's favorite project (Atlantic Yards): if you aren't entirely pro-development, no matter the problems with a development, you don't get a spot on the community board.
Yes, out of the 50 or so members on the board, they have placed a few community centered people just so they can dismiss criticism like this posting, but the development-at-any cost faction of the group is set at more that a solid majority. (Why else would developers with known ethical problems be allowed back on the committee?)
The set up leaves no way to root out truly bad development. The community has been removed from even the 'advisory" roll.

Anonymous said...

4. We need the kind of zoning it currently has

Mayor Bloomberg had instituted a manufacturing preservation zone south of 3rd street but that was before Superfund. Now with EPA mandated cleanup, all of those businesses will need to relocate (to Jersey?) by 2022.

G.S. said...

Michael Brown, Thank you for clarifying the issue of density. I was responding to the issue of density in the context of residential development speculation.

10:41 What kind of hardship has Superfund created? Everyone KNEW for DECADES the land and water was polluted before Superfund ever came. Those who acquired land probably got it very cheaply hoping to make a LOT of money if they could just sweep the truth under the rug. Well, the rug has been pulled from under them! And this is now called a hardship?

Good Morning Gowanus said...

@4:33: "Now with EPA mandated cleanup, all of those businesses will need to relocate (to Jersey?) by 2022."
What? Where did you this from? Pls. site your source(s). If I got a penny for every bit of misinformation/scare tactic about Gowanus/Superfund...hmmm...

Anonymous said...

The EPA really needs to explain how Gowanus industrial businesses can afford to clean their property and continue to operate in Gowanus. The "scare tactic" is scary because no other superfund has retained an industrial user during and post cleanup!

Gowanus business owner said...

The percentage of industrial users who are Responsible Parties for cleaning up is very small compared to the number of industries currently operating in Gowanus. Gowanus is one of the last places for badly needed M2-! zoning. If this zoning is reduced, many of these businesses will need to go out of business. Superfund has not deterred business in Gowanus. The bad economy is the challenge. Not Superfund.

Anonymous said...

I hear a lot of people railing against WF being approved. It seems to be the same people that are against any and all development. I'd like to know what these people are FOR. Is there no such thing as change for the better? In the case of WF Michael Brown correctly stated that the site could have been developed to an as of right density about 10 times greater than the store they proposed. Is that what people want? It may not be zoned for this much retail but its better than 10 times the square footage in condos.
I'm so tired of the nay sayers. Advocate FOR something, anything, that is realistic (financially feasible) and a benefit to a community in a constant state of change. Saying no to everything will only cause others who are constructively participating in a debate about where to go to ignore you altogether.
Oh, and get real FROGGers,landmark status for the Gowanus is a joke!
It is a legal end around tactic to slow down anything new that may be proposed.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know more about the history and heritage of the Gowanus Canal, please refer to the US Army Corps Survey of the Gowanus Canal Corridor, including their nomination of the Gowanus Canal Corridor for the National Register of Historic Places.

G.S. said...

@5:18 - Hello - re your FROGG joke - The Gowanus Conservancy expressed desire to landmark the canal a few years back also. Pls. see link:
"The Gowanus Canal Conservancy is currently spearheading a drive to get the canal named a national historic landmark district...Right smack in the middle of brownstone Brooklyn, the canal has a history all its own,” says Zuckerman (GCC's past executive director), noting that the transformation of the Gowanus from a series of creeks to its role in aiding industry make the waterway historically significant."