Lessons from the Gowanus rezoning
IN OUR OPINION
IN OUR OPINION
Controversial project heads to Council for final vote
Comes after years of discussion, criticism, and compromise
Site will be leased out for private development
The City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises held a three-hour public hearing this past week to gather input on the Gowanus rezoning.
Recent developments reveal an increasing support for the Gowanus rezoning.
Last week, Borough President and Democratic nominee for mayor Eric Adams formally announced his support for the ambitious zoning change.
Although borough presidents only have an advisory role in the land use process, Adams support for the neighborhood-wide rezone is a telling sign that the Democratic nominee would continue to advocate for similar developments if he is elected mayor.
“New York City is always changing, but every once in a while we need a sea change, and that’s what I believe we are embracing now,” Adams said during a press conference.
Adams made it clear that his support was contingent upon the rezoning’s commitment to funding public housing. Multiple NYCHA developments, including the Wyckoff Houses, are included within the area planned for rezoning, but the borough president is hopeful that the money put towards the rezoning will also assist low-income residents.
“This is about investing in public housing,” Adams explained. “Buildings cannot go up around NYCHA developments while residents see their futures go down.”
The Gowanus Rezoning has previously been criticized for opening the neighborhood to increased displacement and gentrification.
However, a new Racial Equity Report on Housing and Opportunity created by the City Council in collaboration with the Fifth Avenue Committee and Columbia University Urban History Professor Lance Freeman found that the zoning change would in fact make the neighborhood more diverse.
The report took neighborhood demographics and income into account, and determined that 20 to 25 percent of the new apartments coming to the neighborhood through the rezoning are projected to be filled by Black residents, while 25 to 37 percent are projected to be filled by Hispanic residents.
Currently, the area slated for rezoning is more than 60 percent white.
“In 2021, New York City remains one of the most highly segregated and unequal cities in the United States,” read the report. “Persistent disparities in access to economic opportunity, quality education, healthcare, housing, and open space have been revealed and exacerbated by a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities.
“Until recently, broad goals of citywide economic growth and housing production without specific regard to racial or socio-economic equity have long dominated the policymaking process,” it continued. “This model of pursuing ‘color-blind’ growth within a vision of New York as a global capital of finance, culture, and tourism continues to influence the City’s overall policy direction and has yet to be fully reckoned with.”
The Gowanus Rezoning was approved on June 24 by community boards 6 and 2 after many months of pushback and legal challenges.
The proposal was originally conceived during the administration of former mayor Michael Bloomberg, but found new life under Mayor Bill de Blasio. It will see 80 square blocks of the neighborhood rezoned to make way for new developments, including the controversial plan to build a complex on the highly polluted Public Place site along the Gowanus Canal.
The rezoning will bring approximately 8,500 new housing units to the neighborhood, including 3,000 units that would be permanently affordable.
Community groups, including the grassroots organization Voice of Gowanus, criticized both the legal process to approve the rezoning and the environmental risks that could come along with new development.
The group successfully secured a temporary restraining order that prevented the rezoning from entering the land-use review process, yet the ruling was soon reversed by New York Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine.
At the time of the rezoning’s approval, many local politicians and community members were still wary of the negative impact the rezoning would bring. Councilman Brad Lander and members of Community Board 6 both expressed their dismay that additional NYCHA funding was not included in the rezoning proposal, and called for the city to conduct a larger study of the rezoning’s potential impact on racial equity.
With the release of the new report last week, these political figures have begun to change their tune.
“As our public statements, communications to the city, and final vote to conditionally approve the Gowanus rezoning made clear, we supported a racial impact study and are glad to see one has been done,” said Mike Racioppo, district manager of Community Board 6. “More important than the study being done are the results of the study, which show Gowanus could become more diverse after the rezoning.”
In addition to the Racial Equity Report, local activists continue to demand that the city support and fund a Gowanus Zoning Commitment Task Force to maintain a steady stream of communication with members of the community.
“The task force will monitor compliance with public and private commitments, adherence to zoning requirements, and implementation of the rezoning,” board leaderhips wrote in a joint statement.
The Department of City Planning (DCP) unveiled its guidebook for future development in Gowanus.
The 118-page document, titled the Gowanus Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) Vision Plan, offers suggestions and goals for commercial, industrial, and residential growth in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
“The Vision Plan that we’re releasing today contains recommendations for infrastructure and workforce training, and lays out a land use framework that will help keep the Gowanus portion of the IBZ a bustling and dynamic jobs hub for decades to come,” explained DCP director Marisa Lago in a statement.
The new document represents the culmination of a multi-year effort to organize a comprehensive plan for the historically industrial area.
While researching for the study, DCP worked closely with Councilman Brad Lander, held multiple town hall meetings with members of Community Board 6, and consulted various environmental experts.
The study area included about 20 blocks of the neighborhood between Third and Hamilton avenues to Third Avenue and 16th Street.
“While the Gowanus IBZ continues to flourish as a local employment hub, the existing zoning has remained largely unchanged since 1961, limiting the ability for businesses to grow and expand,” explains the document’s opening statement. “The study’s core goals are to put forth a land use framework that can inform future private land use applications, and identify infrastructure and workforce development opportunities that can reinforce the area as a 21st century jobs hub.”
Topics addressed in the final document include land use, transportation, infrastructure, and workforce development. A great amount of the guide is also dedicated to strategies for cleaning the highly polluted Gowanus Canal.
Primarily, the guide urged the Department of Environmental Protection to build capture tanks that will reduce sewage and stormwater runoff from going into the canal.
The plan comes on the heels of a months-long controversy surrounding a rezoning of a large majority of Gowanus. The rezoning was originally conceived by ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg but has found new life under Mayor bill de Blasio.
It would rezone 80 square blocks of the neighborhood to make way for new developments, including a controversial plan to build a complex on the highly polluted “Public Place” site along the Gowanus Canal.
Community groups including Voice of Gowanus have consistently opposed the rezoning. Their criticism is directed at both the legal process to approve the rezoning and the environmental risks that could come with new development.
The group successfully secured a temporary restraining order that prevented the rezoning from entering the land use review process. However, New York Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine ruled to allow the city to continue with the public review process so long as an in-person hearing option was offered for those without internet access.
The in-person hearing will take place at J.J. Byrne Playground in Park Slope and will coincide with the virtual hearing. The date and time are yet to be announced.
The Gowanus Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) Vision Plan supports the rezoning and is largely built on the assumption that the measure will pass. However, the ULURP process typically takes seven months, leaving time for a new mayor and City Council to change course in Gowanus.
The owners of 62-04 Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside are requesting a zoning variance to build a 13-story building, taller than the nine stories permitted under the current zoning.
The rezoning’s co-applicants – Astoria-based developer Woodside 63 Management LLC and the local dance and theater non-profit Mare Nostrum Elements, INC. – discussed the potential benefits of the project at Wednesday’s virtual hearing.
“With Mare Nostrum’s assistance, we began engaging with the community about five years ago,” said Steve Lysohir from Woodside 63’s ownership team. “We heard several priorities. Affordable housing, particularly so close to mass transit, is key to the community’s successful future
“Woodside deserves attractive architecture that fits in with the neighborhood around it,” he added. “Many arts organizations have been pushed out of their homes, and so we were inclined to include them based on feedback from Mare Nostrum.”
The proposed mixed-use development would function as both a residential building and community center.
In accordance with the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, the owners of 62-04 Roosevelt are working to ensure that 25 percent of the apartments (54 of the planned 213 units) will be affordable.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mare Nostrum Elements co-founder Kevin Albert also spoke at length about the nonprofit’s plan to make the new building a haven for local artists.
“We hope the development will be a space for people in the community,” Albert said. “The current model of performance art spaces in the city does not work. The pandemic has shown us that.”
The plans for 62-04 Roosevelt include studio and performance spaces for dance groups, musicians, and artists. Woodside 63 and Mare Nostrum plan on lending the space to local community groups for free rehearsals and then renting the space to other groups to raise more revenue.
Mare Nostrum also hopes on holding its own community-focused dance and art classes in the space as well.
In addition to housing and community amenities, much of Wednesday’s hearing was focused on transportation and sustainability. The site is located in close proximity to the 61st Street Station on the 7 train, which lends itself to transit-oriented development.
“We also know this is a very climate-conscious community,” Lysohir explained. “One of the most important steps local governments can take to combat climate change is to promote density near mass transit.”
Lysohir also discussed the increase in Citi Bikes in the area, and expressed Woodside 63’s interest in working with community leaders to create more bike lanes in the neighborhood.
The developer also has plans to implement energy-saving aspects to its design, including solar-panels, high-efficiency cooling and heating, and high-performance insulated windows.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the developer also plans on reducing high-touch surfaces throughout the building.
The current single-story structure at 62-04 Roosevelt Avenue has been home to a series of struggling businesses. Lysohir and the Astoria-based Woodside 63 Management are hoping to revitalize the site.
If the variance isn’t approved, the developer still plans on constructing a nine-story, smaller version of the project that is allowed under the current zoning.