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NYC public hearings go digital during coronavirus pandemic

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Various municipal meetings are going virtual due to social distancing

Max Touhey

New York City’s government is gradually creeping back to life through remote hearings.

The novel coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing rules it necessitates, has paused various municipal meetings, but some agencies are beginning to make a virtual comeback. The City Council will hold a digital stated meeting on April 22 for the first time in its 82-year history. That same week, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will launch virtual public hearings, allowing applicants to present their projects remotely and for New Yorkers to provide live testimony.

The transition online comes as governing bodies attempt to adapt to life amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I speak for all members in saying we are eager to resume legislating for the people of New York,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “The coming weeks and months will not be easy for us as a city, but I can guarantee that the Council will do everything in its power to help us weather this difficult time.”

The Council has yet to announce an agenda for Wednesday’s hearing. It is unclear what virtual service the body will use, though Council spokesperson Jacob Tugendrajch confirmed that the hearing will be a video conference. The public will be able to watch in real time on the Council’s website.

Meanwhile, the LPC plans to host its hearings on Zoom in addition to a live stream on its YouTube channel. Those interested in providing testimony on projects can join the meetings either through Zoom or by calling in.

“While we will be using a new platform for our hearings, we will ensure our hearings are fair, transparent and accessible to the public,” said LPC Chair Sarah Carroll.

Agenda items that were originally scheduled for March 17 will be heard on April 21. The commission will also hold an additional public hearing on May 5. The LPC has accepted online project applications and issued permits electronically since March 17.

Other city meetings set to take place virtually include the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), which each spring holds a series of raucous public hearings that culminate in a vote to determine increases for rent-regulated tenants. Last year, the board approved a 1.5 percent increase for one-year leases and a 2.5 percent hike for two-year leases. This year, Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for a freeze on rents as many of the city’s renters struggle to make ends meet in light of the pandemic.

“Lord knows that people do not need another burden at this moment,” de Blasio said while announcing the remote process. “And I want to see the Rent Guidelines Board act quickly to say the least.”

The RGB will kick off this year’s process with an April 23 video conference at 9:30 a.m. to discuss its 2020 Income and Expense Study. New Yorkers can attend either through video or by dialing in.

Concerns about social distancing have also frozen the city’s public review process—known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure—that is needed to obtain rezonings. This has put several big-ticket projects in limbo, including a contested rezoning of Industry City in Sunset Park and the de Blasio admin’s streetcar project connecting the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts.

Although the city has yet to unveil a virtual ULURP process, City Hall spokesperson Jane Meyer confirmed that it’s exploring ways to digitally conduct the multistep effort.