The discussion about rezoning the Gowanus neighborhood is primarily about the place itself—what will happen to the 80-odd blocks where the city is focusing its proposals, to the mix of homes and businesses existing there now, to the public housing and industrial land on the outskirts, and to the people who live or work across the entire area.
It’s also about something more abstract: whether the city can successfully do something approximating comprehensive planning without actually creating a comprehensive plan.
The Gowanus Framework, released by the Department of City Planning last month, is the most granular document the de Blasio administration—which from the early days promised “comprehensive” planning—has issued at this stage of the process in any of the six neighborhoods where it has moved toward zoning changes. Running to 118-changes, it applies six lenses (resilience, remediation, jobs, culture, transportation and housing) to the area, identifying dozens of specific challenges and opportunities under each category and articulating multiple goals and strategies relevant to each of those.
That degree of detail didn’t come out of nowhere. As the de Blasio administration’s approach to planning has matured, shaped by contentious rezonings in places like East New York and East Harlem, the city has shown more willingness to spell out the investments and policy moves it will make in tandem with changes to the zoning map. And in Gowanus, the city’s framework came after more than a year and a half of public engagement, which itself piggybacked on the two-year Bridging Gowanus planning effort organized by Councilmember Brad Lander, a trained planner.
There is still a long way to go. The city’s draft plan is expected at the end of calendar 2018, with environmental review slated for early 2019 and the rezoning proposal likely entering the seven-month Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure toward the midpoint of next year.
When that process kicks off, there will be voices in the neighborhood who resist any change. “There are a range of different kinds of reasons why people are skeptical about a rezoning as a tool for achieving our broader goals of affordability, an inclusive neighborhood, sustainability and mixed use. I understand why for some people there’s an impulse to say, ‘Let’s not do that,'” says Lander. “I get that.”
He contends, however, that the status quo in Gowanus will not produce those goals, because the development already coming in suggests a future of hotels, office buildings, self-storage space and recreational activities for non-residents. “That’s not terrible. But its not achieving the goals the community has.”
Demands for clarity of IBZ vision
For all the plan’s depth, there are countless areas where details must be filled in. There are also two major issues that were, over the objections of some of the participants in the process, largely left out of the framework. Chief among these is the portion of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) in the southern part of the Gowanus neighborhood. The city refused to make that part of the rezoning despite a strong push from Lander and IBZ property owners.
In the framework, the administration said it will “engage with businesses and community-based stakeholders to assess the needs of businesses and study the area’s land use and economic trends to produce a vision for the area’s future.”
“In the IBZ, the city will draw upon new and evolving zoning tools for similar industrial districts and explore the potential for land use, infrastructure and workforce development initiatives to support the expansion of industrial businesses and other job-generating uses,” the framework read.
The city says that conversation will start in the fall. For his part, Lander told City Limits that it will have to produce something more concrete before the Council approves any Gowanus rezoning. “It will be critical to me amongst many other stakeholders that we get a clear vision and commitments to implement it before we act on the rezoning application.”
North of the IBZ, within the area where a rezoning is likely, the city’s framework includes steps to protect three industrial clusters by prohibiting residential uses, restricting self-storage facilities and hotels, right-sizing parking regulations and permitting a broader size-range of industrial buildings, which right now must either be relatively small or fairly large, with nothing in between.
The bulk of the likely rezoning, however, would transform several once-industrial areas into mixed-use areas, including in areas along the Gowanus Canal where housing is now prohibited. These moves respond to a key goal of the planning effort, which is to increase housing capacity in the area—including affordable housing generated by the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing rule and city subsidies.
To Paul Basile, director of the Southwest Brooklyn IBZ, that’s a recipe for trouble. “I think they are trying to paint the picture with too many colors,” he says. “They are going to create huge quality of life issues.” What he means is, placing industrial businesses near an expanding residential neighborhood is bound the create use conflicts—heavy trucks trying to navigate around bike stands, manufactures struggling to get deliveries in around the crowds gathered for recreational axe-throwing, and the noise that leads to resident complaints and city fines—that industry almost always loses.
The answer, he says, is to rezone the Gowanus section of the IBZ to allow more density. “We know we have a shortage. We have a waiting list of people who want to work in Gowanus,” Basile says, contending that in the past two years, six businesses have left the IBZ or found a different place to expand. “They’re just going to cut and run and leave. You close the door to that potential.”
The city has a totally different view of the state of the IBZ: They see it thriving and detect little reason for a rezoning, leaving them worried about unintended consequences—an example of this might be a glut of industrial space. It’s unclear how open the administration is to zoning changes to the IBZ. Other elements of the Gowanus framework, like some of the resiliency measures, will impact the IBZ as well as the areas likely to be rezoned.
That’s not enough for Basile. “We don’t want Gowanus to become a playground for the privileged,” he says. “I think [the IBZ zoning change] needs to be tied directly to this rezoning. They will have no political reason to push this through after a residential rezoning.”
Uncertainties for NYCHA
For Sabine Aronowsky, campaign manager for the South Brooklyn Accountable Development Initiative at the Fifth Avenue Committee, the exclusion of the IBZ from the framework on the neighborhood’s south side mirrors the decision not to address the challenges facing the three NYCHA developments—Wyckoff Gardens, Gowanus and Warren Street—situated at its northern end. “They’re splitting [the neighborhood] three different ways,” she says. “It’s a really bad idea to split it.” For one thing, that narrow viewpoint can lead to an inaccurate and “very rosy picture of the neighborhood” that overlooks inequity.
The Gowanus-area public-housing developments already feature prominently in NYCHA’s efforts to leverage its assets in a way that generates desperately needed money to complete an enormous backlog of repairs. Wyckoff is the site of a “NextGen” development involving a mix of market-rate and affordable units. Warren Street is part of the Residential Assistance Demonstration that converts NYCHA residents to voucher holders and puts the property under control of a public-private partnership.
In the likely rezoning, advocates for the local NYCHA developments saw another potential source of capital for repairs—the escalating value of properties that undergo a dramatic upzoning. They wanted to see a “value capture” mechanism through which property owners benefitting from the rezoning pay into a fund for NYCHA’s use, similar to the way Hudson Yards development generated money for the 7 subway line extension, air rights in Chelsea helped build the High Line and the East Midtown rezoning included mechanisms for funding public amenities.
“Twenty-five percent of Gowanus’ residents live in NYCHA in sub-standard conditions,” says FAC executive director Michelle de la Uz. “Let’s not exacerbate the Tale of Two Cities as part of the Gowanus rezoning. Let’s eliminate it.”
However, the city offered merely to “consider funding improvements to Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Gardens, and Warren Street Houses during the rezoning process,” adding: “Capital needs will be evaluated via an assessment of improvements needed in these developments, in the context of broader investments in NYCHA.”
As with the IBZ, the city was resistant to expanding the geographic reach of the framework to include NYCHA and making a complicated rezoning that much more so. There was a desire to get Gowanus out of the planning “limbo” it’s been in for several years now. More important was a concern that, with some sites needing expensive decontamination before development and MIH already imposing housing requirements on some landowners, a mandate to help fund NYCHA would have made development unaffordable.
That economic risk could have posed a potential legal problem as well: Were a court to find that the value-capture requirements were so onerous they constituted an illegal taking, it could undermine zoning tools use citywide.
This fear was also what led the city to push off the table an idea that gained some traction early in the Gowanus process: a mandatory-mixed use rule to make sure that residential development didn’t take over whole blocks to the detriment of retail and industry. Instead, the city will use incentives to try to accomplish the same goal.
That’s a disappointment to the Councilmember behind the planning push. He would have preferred a mandate. Still, Lander points out that on both NYCHA and IBZ, the city’s commitment to exploring deeper solutions outside the rezoning discussion—while unsatisfying—is better than their total omission from the framework.
But some advocates are frustrated. “Developers around the canal get a huge windfall,” says Aronowsky, while in the city’s framework, “There’s nothing about commitment.”
The broader context
The likely rezoning isn’t the only thing about to reshape Gowanus. The federal Superfund cleanup of the canal will be a major factor. The proposed District 15 school desegregation initiative could also be a transformative, if also tense, process.
These other threads of discussion were on the minds of people who strolled around the gym of P.S. 32 on Hoyt Street one evening in late June to attend an open house about the framework.
“Slow down District 15 Diversity plan timeline—consult [people of color], rent-stabilized, NYCHA communities more thoroughly,” read one comment written on a sheet of paper taped to the wall, while Karen Blondel, a Red Hook Houses resident, wondered about the impact of the Superfund project on surrounding streets. “Exactly how are they going to transport the debris?” she wondered. “In order to get the material out they have to go through Red Hook, which is also under heavy construction.”
Other comments addressed the heart of the likely rezoning. “Why allow such heights immediately around Thomas Greene Park?” penned one visitor.
The framework gives residents and advocates a lot to sift through. Remediation requirements attached to redevelopment. Job-training opportunities. An exploration of potential solar power adoption. Flood-resistant construction in manufacturing areas. Identifying ways to improve Washington Park, Old Stone House and the Brooklyn Public Library’s Pacific Street Branch. Adding school seats, analyzing the possibility of building new bridges across the canal. Creating a Waterfront Access Plan aimed at fashioning “opportunities for passive and active recreation and attention to sea-level rise.”
A few of the plan’s features reflect new citywide policies, like the “certificate of no harassment” pilot. To the dismay of some, many elements of the framework are existing policies—wise and welcome, perhaps, but not really a reaction to the new development the plan will include.
For instance, the framework notes efforts the city is already making to deal with sewage overflows. But these don’t address the new burdens all those new Gowanus apartments will make on the sewage system. “[City Planning] plans to do a study of sewer capacity,” says Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Conservancy. “But we need to push for much stronger commitments to funding more high-performance infrastructure in the public realm.” In other areas of the framework, Parker says, the policies pertaining to resiliency and sustainability are better articulated, but the funding is still a question-mark.
The framework, of course, is just that. It’s not the city’s rezoning proposal, let alone its final offer. More than once in the document, the city refers to new zoning tools it will have to develop to achieve some desired end: The plan is to fill in those blanks before the rezoning is complete. There is time to sketch out other vague commitments, as well, though it’s uncertain how much certainty the final plan will offer. Had City Planning delivered a fully baked plan at this stage of the process, however, it might have been accused of dictating instead of engaging. And the value of the city’s genuine efforts to engage are part of what will be tested as Gowanus turns toward the formal rezoning process.
Lander hopes the upcoming charter revision will include moves toward crafting a citywide, comprehensive plan—something New York City has never done. Such a comprehensive plan would have avoided truncating NYCHA and the IBZ from the planning for central Gowanus. In the absence of that mechanism, he argues that what’s been done so far in Gowanus justifies setting some of the skepticism about rezonings aside and crediting the city for making a genuine effort to engage.
“I feel for a neighborhood planning process and certainly in the context of the rezoning we’ve seen in the city—not just during the de Blasio administration, but the Bloomberg administration and before that—this is a more comprehensive, more community engaged, more integrated approach to neighborhood planning than I think we’ve seen to date,” he says.