Adi Talwar

City Councilmember Brad Lander addressing attendees of the Department of City Planning’s pen house on February 6, 2019 at PS32 on Hoyt Street to discuss the draft zoning proposal.

At P.S. 238 on Hoyt Street in Gowanus, an empty basketball gym quickly became packed with dozens of residents and stakeholders Wednesday to see the presentation held by the Department of City Planning on the draft rezoning proposal for Gowanus and its waterfront.

The city’s plan for a orderly evening of presenting the draft rezoning proposal with each involved city agency present was disrupted by dozens of members of the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ) who held their own presentation on how the city’s draft rezoning proposal did not address their concerns after years of participating in the city’s engagement meetings with the community.

“The [draft rezoning proposal] is rushed. We cannot let this plan move forward in its incomplete state. Commitments to equity concerns and affordable housing should have been fixed first before any other process. No scope until out demands are in scope,” said Karen Blondel, Red Hook resident and GNJC member. “The development along the Gowanus Canal does not address the needs of the community. So we are holding our own meeting to address our concerns here with DCP.”

The GNCJ said it participated in DCP’s engagement meetings for over two years and the groups’ priority from the beginning has been to fix unsafe conditions in public housing, to provide equity and environmental justice for Gowanus residents. GNCJ said the city had not heard its concern at all and the evidence was in the draft rezoning proposal where their concerns had not been addressed.

In their demand, GNJC asked for rezoning plan that specifically addresses racial and economic justice, protects public housing and its residents, creates real affordable housing, protection from displacement, promotes environmental justice, celebrates the culture of the community and protects local businesses and industry of the area.

But not everyone agreed with GNCJ. Community Board 6 member Gwen Kelly said he had been a part of the Carroll Gardens rezoning community planning process and found the Gowanus community planning process to be much more engaging, “They heard us for the most part but they did not get everything right. And that is what this part is about.”

As parts of the crowd chanted, “The Gowanus plan is incomplete, City Hall take a seat” and “Before you rezone, fix our homes,” DCP Brooklyn Director Winston Von Engel addressed the room, telling them their concerns would be answered in detail during the community board meeting. Kelly chimed in to confirm the information.

“This is the culmination of years and months of work we have done,” said Von Engel. “To come up with an vision for Gowanus and how to implement that vision. One part of that is changes in land use, bringing community resources, open space, space for schools, jobs. This is not just about rezoning  — this is about a comprehensive coordinated plan among many city agencies.”

From NYCHA, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Relations, Brian Honan also spoke to the residents and protestors about their concerns. But the crowd did not calm down until Councilmember Brad Lander rose to say he shared some of the same concerns the GNCJ had about the draft rezoning proposal.

The draft Gowanus rezoning proposal spans an estimated 80 blocks bounded by Bond Street to the west, Baltic Street to the north, 4th Avenue to the east from Pacific Street to 15th Street and cuts off near Hamilton Avenue in the South in the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone. The plan is slated to bring an estimated 1,000 new residents into the area and could create opportunities for new affordable housing.

Along the Canal and near Thomas Greene Playground, zoning requirements and incentives would facilitate larger-scale mixed-use developments which include light industrial and repair-based businesses, nonprofit organizations, arts and cultural uses, and other job-generating uses. Publicly accessible waterfront open space also would be mandated in connection with private developments along the Canal.

In the Fourth Avenue Corridor, the city proposes a C4-4D zoning for a commercial and residential mix of buildings which will be covered by Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (the levels of MIH have yet to be defined for the area). It will also include plans to make improvements to subway stations.

In residential areas, such as Warren Street, the city will take a closer look at the existing R6 zoning where buildings can range from a single story to 13 stories tall. In the upland area, surrounding parts of the Gowanus Canal, the city proposes a mixed-use zoning of medium to light manufacturing and residential buildings where buildings can reach up to 20 stories. At the vacant city-owned site, at the corner of Smith and 5th Streets, known as Public Place, the rezoning aims to facilitate redevelopment for affordable housing and complementary uses in conjunction with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

The city proposes a mix of new housing, including new permanently affordable housing, commercial, artist and maker space for the Canal corridor. It proposes the zoning for M1 districts to typically include light industrial uses, such as woodworking shops, repair shops, and wholesale service and storage facilities, according to DCP. For residential areas, it proposes a R7-2 zoning which are medium-density apartment buildings common in the Bronx and the Upper West Side.

DCP says its waterfront access plan will take a closer look at existing requirements for public access and identify specific locations for required public walkways along the Canal, upland connections, supplemental public access areas and visual corridors.

According to DCP, the rezoning package also includes remediation of brownfield sites to safely accommodate new development; requirements for “climate resilient” new development; creation of new community resources such as schools; subway station improvements; and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) infrastructure upgrades, including recently-completed sewer construction as well as planning, design and property acquisition for infrastructure to reduce sewage entering the Canal.

On the Industrial Business Zone, DCP said they will continue engagement with business owners of the area, which includes bringing infrastructure improvements and broadband to the area.

While residents and spectators watched the GNCJ impromptu meeting continued — in the back of the room another set of stakeholders ranging from local businessmen to architects took a careful look at the city’s Gowanus rezoning proposal.

“Right now, the proposal is a negative, The rezoning limits what businesses in the area can do,” said Steven Adler, who has property and businesses in the Gowanus area. “The way the building is is zoned only allows us to build so high. I can only sell it to as a commercial property.”

Adler said he expected some more flexibility on how his properties could be used. He currently uses an adjacent lot as a parking lot for 500 of his employees. Adler owns a copy machine repair and software company. He does not have plans to sell his business anytime soon but wanted to have that option,”What do we do with our properties?”

Another businessman who represents a property owner in the Industrial Business Zone said about the protest and the rezoning proposal, “This is still in the proposal stage, the learning stages. What might be good for us (local businesses), might not be good for them (residents) and what might be good for them might not be good for the other guy. There is a lot to work out and every voice needs to be heard.”

Long-time residents such as Peter Itak, an attorney, and Charlie Carames, in real estate, asked questions about infrastructure and resources such as schools and fire stations, “It’s 20 stories and I am being kind to them. They don’t have a plan for infrastructure but they are destroying the Canal [with tall buildings].”

Itak said during the Park Slope rezoning changes did come but the city managed to still retain the feel of the neighborhood but he does not see the same success with the Gowanus plan, “This is something else.”

Carames said there are no transit plans to accommodate the 1,000 new residents coming into the neighborhood on the “A thousand people moving in to either side of the Canal — lets say its 500 people and they decide to go to work between 8-9 a.m. on two platforms,” he said. “Forget it.”

Itak said DCP told him the city needed housing, but Itak said the city knows this area is sellable and this area will get the most revenue for the city, “This neighborhood had been around for 150 years and people like me who moved here, moved here specifically for the feel of the neighborhood. This is breaking my heart.”

Councilmember Lander said he shares some of GNCJ concerns but he is also optimistic: “We have much better public policy in place now and it is a long journey. I think on the mix of uses there is a really strong step forward, on sustainable and resilience some meaningful steps forward and on infrastructure there are hints of some progress on transit and schools. I love that the open space will be a public park and not a private one. When we started this process it was going to part a developers project and now we have a public park and it will be maintained like a public park.”

But Lander said on public housing and the IBZ the city was not even close to what the area needs. The city did not make the IBZ part of the plan yet but have told the Councilmember the rezoning will address infrastructure and maintaining the industrial character of the IBZ.

“The main way I read what happened tonight is public housing residents are fed up and with good reason. One element of the Gowanus rezoning is to invest in public housing and we have said this from the beginning,” Lander said.

Lander added the rezoning could go a lot further and wants to see more innovative plans for a more sustainable Gowanus.

DCP will be holding another meeting on the Gowanus draft rezoning proposal on February 28, 2019 at 6:00 p.m. during Community Board 6 meeting. The location for the meeting has not been announced yet.

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