Industry, NYCHA and Flooding are Areas of Concern as Gowanus Moves Toward Rezoning

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NYC DCP

A map from the city's Gowanus framework showing flood risk. Some residents want to hear more about protective measures before any rezoning is complete.

The de Blasio administration’s Gowanus planning framework released this month contained few surprises for most of the stakeholders who worked closely with the city to bring the document into fruition. But its lack of detail on the commitment of city resources, the needs of local NYCHA developments and the future of industrial firms has raised concerns among some involved in the process.

A rezoning for Gowanus has been anticipated for years. This proposal —which would be the fifth neighborhood rezoning proposed by the de Blasio administration—grew out of a city study launched in 2016. That was preceded by a community planning effort, called “Bridging Gowanus,” run by Councilman Brad Lander from 2013 to 2015.

But cautious Gowanus stakeholders had learned hard lessons from the 2003 and 2007 rezonings of Fourth Avenue and Park Slope and their lack of measures to prevent displacement and ensure benefits for the larger Gowanus community. To avoid repeating history, over 300 stakeholders from homeowners, tenants and NYCHA residents to small business owners, environmental activists, artists and affordable housing advocates, created the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ) in 2017 to ensure the needs of the community were met and released their own report on how the city could address those needs.

The city’s framework report, which includes most of the GNCJ’s and “Bridging Gowanus” recommendations, focuses on creating affordable housing through the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing program and the provision of related programs, addresses environmental and resiliency issues, and aims to sustain local businesses and culture. When it comes to rezoning, the framework aims to increase density and create a better mix of uses in the area through requirements for new residential developments to set aside 20 to 30 percent of all units as permanently affordable..

A call for open space near the canal for public access, job creation for residents, cultural space for artists, meeting real affordability needs for families with varied incomes, preventing displacement and reopening a community center at a public housing development were just some of the similarities in the city’s framework to the recommendations made in “Bridging Gowanus” and the GNCJ reports.

Despite praise for the detailed framework report, some stakeholders felt the Department of City Planning missed an opportunity to collaborate better. Coalition members pointed out that the framework did not give details about what additional resources or amenities the city would provide for the community.

“They have taken very specific things from our master plan. I think they did an excellent job in taking a fine grain approach and really looking at the neighborhood, not as a blank slate but as a place that has a lot different parts that all need their own treatment,” said Andrea Parker, a resident and member of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus Neighborhood Justice Coalition.

But Parker raised some shared concerns, “The two big things that our partners were concerned about were the [Industrial Business Zone] and NYCHA. And both of those, they are still wishy washy.”

“The other piece is the sewage. They included in the report what the city was already doing with sewage overflow but they did not add any additional measures.There is so much opportunity here to implement better water and sewage management,” Parker said.

After a storm some parts of Gowanus are inundated with rain water to the point where vehicles cannot drive through residential and commercial streets. Parker said the framework included a program already in place and would like to see additional resources to address the issue of water and sewage management.

For NYCHA residents, the framework report did not address in detail the major infrastructural repairs that public housing has needed for decades. And the construction of additional housing was focused on new “affordable” housing and not public housing

NYCHA residents (approximately 1,800 households) make up part of the Gowanus community across three NYCHA campuses: the Gowanus Houses, Warren Street Houses and Wyckoff Gardens, all just outside of the DCP primary study area.

The framework noted the selection of Wyckoff Gardens for NYCHA’S NextGen Neighborhoods, a program that leverages development on underutilized space to generate revenue to reinvest back NYCHA while still creating affordable housing units, according to NYCHA.

Wyckoff Gardens has three 21-story buildings with 527 units and 1,173 residents. The buildings sit on 5.81 acres of land. The new housing would create between 550 and 650 units, and one third of those units would be affordable, according to NYCHA.

“The residents engagement had to do with affordable housing. When you are talking about affordable housing—you are not talking about public housing,” said Charlene Nimmons, a Wyckoff Houses resident for over 30 years, former tenant president and founder of Public Housing Communities.

Nimmons said the opportunity for public housing residents to be engaged was important but they wanted physical improvements at Wyckoff Gardens, not development that would crowd an already congested public housing space.

“We are only four blocks and they are talking about 500 units—adding a thousand more people in a four-block radius,” said Nimmons.

Nimmons said the framework report also mentioned cosmetic repairs at existing NYCHA properties such as painting and landscaping that, she says, are not the biggest issues. Many residents for many years have taken on cosmetic repairs on their own, including Nimmons’ son who plastered and painted his own wall after a leak in their housing unit.

“What repairs are they referring to? Because we need a major infrastructure overhaul. All of that needs to be taken care of before you do the cosmetic. We are not trying to hear that—we can do all that ourselves,” Nimmons said.

Sabine Aronowsky, longtime Gowanus resident and Fifth Avenue Committee program manager for the South Brooklyn Accountable Development Initiative, said in an email statement said given the city’s already massive neglect and mismanagement of public housing repairs, “…the Framework gives short shrift to the needs of the largest cluster of residents in the Northern Gowanus area.”

Stakeholders in the Industrial Business Zone—such as construction, manufacturing, transportation, warehouse, and utilities industries, located along south of 3rd Street, west of 3rd Avenue and east of the Canal—were frustrated by the framework reports’ lack of consideration for the value of the industry. The framework wants to include mixed-use areas where residential, commercial and manufacturing exist in the manufacturing zones north of Third Street. But business owners in the IBZ want to preserve space and add more space for growth.

“Why is the IBZ not being utilized?,” said Peter Basile, president of the Gowanus Alliance, in a past interview with City Limits. “Blue-collar jobs are the legs of this city and this is cutting the legs off. We are seeing this in Baltimore and Upstate New York, those jobs are moving to Newark.”

Industry and residential can be a delicate mix, he said. “It is matter of time before the trucks become too loud.” Basile’s biggest fear is that business owners get pushed out of the area completely. “It does not look we are going to be a part of this process,” he said.

The Department of City Planning says the planning behind the framework was a result of a highly engaged community and workshops over the past year, adding that the needs of public housing and the IBZ were beyond the scope of the study but were included in the framework after persistent feedback from the community.

According to the DCP, some parts of the framework already have ongoing projects behind them while NYCHA and IBZ will have to be assessed and studied separately. The focus of the framework was and has been to study the area for residential use, the agency said.

On the specific issue of sewage treatment, the DCP plans on introducing a shoreline elevation project which will leverage new developments to raise the shoreline around the Gowanus, and that elevation would protect surrounding streets from daily inundation as the sea-level rises. A similar policy tool was included in the Inwood waterfront access plan.

DCP expects additional input from Gowanus stakeholders in the fall before the framework evolves into a draft plan for the neighborhood.

Stakeholders say they are waiting to see if the city addresses their concerns.

“We’ve repeatedly raised our voices to ask for commitments [for NYCHA and IBZ] and the DCP has documented via the framework some of what we’ve asked for, but whether we’re truly being heard by NYC remains to be seen by how NYC responds and what is selected to move forward via this Framework,” said Aronowsky.

Aronowsky said the GNJC did not want to make mistake of the 2003 Park Slope rezoning on Fourth Avenue when the city rezoned for residential development but did not include a affordable housing plan for the community. The rezoning led to market-rate pricing across Fourth Avenue.

“Learning from the lessons of the prior Fourth Avenue rezoning, we understand that a possible forthcoming Gowanus rezoning proposal must capture more community benefits around infrastructure, environment and equity for the long standing community of residents that has endured decades of environmental, social and economic neglect,” said Aronowsky.

Some GNCJ members said the DCP could expect them to raise some of their concerns at the next June 27th Open House held in Brooklyn. DCP expects to present the draft of the rezoning plan in the fall.

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