With nearly unanimous approval Wednesday from the City Planning Commission, the long-in-the-making rezoning of Gowanus heads to crucial negotiations between key City Council members and Mayor Bill de Blasio over the Brooklyn neighborhood’s future.
The final result will be key to the de Blasio legacy: It’s the administration’s first effort to use rezoning to spur racial and economic diversification of one of the city’s whitest and increasingly wealthy neighborhoods.
The proposal is also the linchpin of efforts to clear up the polluted area, home to the infamous Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site. And the rezoning bid comes as a similar de Blasio-sponsored effort in SoHo and NoHo in Manhattan appears bogged down by intense opposition.
“The status quo is not one that tends toward inclusion or remediation and open space,” said Michelle de la Uz, head of the nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee, which will build 950 units of affordable housing under the Gowanus plan. “People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that more development can improve the neighborhood.”
Opponents, though, are pressing environmental concerns, from toxicity to the flooding brought by climate change.
“New York City may want to push this through as quickly as possible,” said Linda LaViolette, co-chair of the outreach committee of the opposition group Voice of Gowanus. “However, City Planning has yet to answer many important questions regarding the environmental impact statement.”
The plan to both rezone the area and clean up the pollution from decades of industrial activity has been in the works for years. The current proposal targets an 82-block area, from Atlantic Avenue to 15th Street, bounded by Fourth Avenue on the east and stretching west variously to Bond and Smith streets.
The rezoning would allow the construction of more than 8,000 new apartments, open space and public amenities like schools. About 3,000 of the apartments would be deemed “affordable,” with many set aside for low-income New Yorkers.
‘A Chicken-and-Egg Thing’
The demands made on developers are extensive, notes local Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), a city comptroller candidate who is one of the prime movers behind the rezoning effort. Developers, who are required to provide affordable housing and green rooftops, are being offered building-size bonuses for schools and transit improvements.
The rezoning received a major boost over the summer when a racial impact study conducted by a Columbia University professor and City Council staffers found that half the affordable apartments are likely to be occupied by Black and Hispanic residents in a district that is 60% white and rapidly gentrifying.
The key sticking point in keeping Lander on board and winning Council approval will be the amount of money the administration will commit to rehabilitate NYCHA housing in the area, including the Gowanus and Wyckoff Gardens complexes.
The de Blasio Administration has offered three packages of improvements, totaling nearly $150 million. The administration’s own estimate of the amount needed to fix the developments is about $250 million.
“Investments in public housing has been the No. 1 community demand,” said Lander, who is working in tandem with local Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn). “We take it as their opening offer.”
“The City is committed to addressing needs at local NYCHA developments as part of this rezoning process,” said Mitch Schwartz, deputy press secretary for de Blasio. “We’ve been in active conversation with NYCHA, tenant leaders, and the Council members to that end, and we’ll continue the conversation as the ULURP process advances,”
Meanwhile, recent flooding from remnants Hurricane Ida, especially at deluge-vulnerable Fourth Avenue and Carroll Street, has raised new concerns about the plan. While not directly related to the rezonings, the city will be expected to address overwhelmed drainage systems with thousands of new residents on tap for Gowanus.
The new buildings to be constructed under the rezoning will help with the problem as well as the overall cleanup, rezoning supporters say.
“There is a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Jessica Katz, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council. “There is the coastal flood risk, and Gowanus is exactly the kind of neighborhood that needs new housing that can incorporate technology to reduce flooding.”
Some community activists argue that building up what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated a toxic Superfund site is reckless. Much of their concerns center on the Fifth Avenue Committee’s project, which sits on the long-ago site of a gas-manufacturing plant.
The fears were amplified when an EPA official at a community meeting last year said he would not live there, but superiors later said his statements didn’t reflect the agency’s position.
“The opponents have chosen to offer a lot of misinformation and haven’t really taken into account the gas plant sites that have been remediated and have exactly the kind of uses that are proposed here,” said de la Uz. “They exist in NYC at former sites and they refuse to believe it is safe.”
The commission’s vote was 9 to 0 with one abstention.
As Brooklyn borough president, mayoral nominee Eric Adams supported the plan with reservations as did the local community board. His campaign spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.
No-Go in SoHo?
While Gowanus has reached the final stage of the city’s land use approval process, a proposal to bring affordable housing and update retail zoning in SoHo has encountered more public opposition.
It’s also designed to bring more racial and economic diversity to a heavily white and very wealthy neighborhood.
This week the Department of City Planning made several changes to the proposal that primarily shaved the allowed density. The plan would still authorize 3,200 new housing units in Lower Manhattan as well as overhaul a cumbersome process for approving retail stores.
A vote is coming before the City Planning Commission in the next several weeks.
The opposition has been loud and remains stridently opposed.
“The changes are giving us bread crumbs,” said Sean Sweeney, president of the SoHo Alliance.
The Alliance argues the rezoning will pave the way for big-box stores and lead to high rises boxing in SoHo’s landmarked historic district.
“We are fighting this not only for SoHo but for historic preservation throughout the city,” Sweeney said. “If they are going to do it in SoHo, they are going to do it in Brooklyn Heights, Riverdale, Greenwich Village and Harlem.”
Although both are designed to diversify the neighborhoods, the difference between Gowanus and SoHo is that the community was heavily involved in all aspects for the process in Brooklyn while the Manhattan rezoning has been driven by the de Blasio administration — a point made by both Lander and housing advocates.
But demographics play a role too.
SoHo is “a more privileged neighborhood and it’s more difficult to stand up to the loudest voices,” said Katz.
Pro-rezoning advocates are working to make their voices heard as well.
“At every public hearing about the SoHo proposal the housing community has come together to do something to help prevent segregation in the city from being exacerbated,” Katz added.
Even if the SoHo proposal isn’t approved before de Blasio leaves office, Adams, who has backed the proposal, could revive it if he wins in November.
“The city’s housing creation has not kept pace with population and recent census numbers show we are desperate for more housing,” said Katz.