Schools, Landmarks and Ecology Are the Focus as Gowanus Awaits Next Rezoning Steps

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Along the Gowanus, which has been recognized as a health nuisance since the 1800s.

As Gowanus residents await the city’s environmental impact analysis for a potential rezoning, advocates and elected officials are taking steps to prepare for the changes likely to come by landmarking historic sites, calling for a designated “eco-district” and raising concerns about school integration around the Brooklyn canal.

Last Wednesday, School District 15, which encompasses Carroll Gardens to Sunset Park, including Gowanus, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene and the waterfront Red Hook neighborhood, held a meeting at P.S. 676 to discuss the rezoning of the school district as a measure to address the issue of filling unused seats and promoting diversity.

Last year, the Department of Education (DOE) announced that in an effort to increase diversity in its classrooms, students would no longer be “screened” based on grades, test scores or auditions for performing arts programs. Rather, the district would open up the lottery to prioritize students who come from low-income households, those who are learning English and families who are homeless.

School integration has long been a contentious issue for Gowanus residents and to address it, the city could go in one of two directions. One approach would be to keep the individual geographic zones of the district while at each school, an estimated 25 to 35 percent of the seats would be prioritized for students in temporary housing (STH), Multilingual Learners (MLL) and students income-eligible for free and reduced-price lunches (FRL). Some schools would accommodate out-of-zone STH, MLLs, and students income-eligible for FRLs.

Another option is to create a “shared zone” which would eliminate current zone lines between impacted schools (seven schools in the area); those facilities would then admit students through a choice admissions process prioritizing STH, MLLs and students income-eligible for FRL for an estimated 25 to 35 percent of available seats. The students residing in the shared zone “would have a zoned entitlement to a seat at one of the seven schools, but not at any one individual school within the zone,” according to the DOE presentation.

According to documents from the DOE, new construction will add an estimated 436 seats at P.S. 32, which is nestled between the Carroll Gardens and Gowanus neighborhoods, as well as create newly designed classrooms for early childhood and special needs students, a new cafeteria, library and rooftop gym.

After the DOE presentation, parent Tracey Pinkard, who lives with three children in Gowanus Houses, asked city education officials if DOE had taken into account the density increase that will come with the rezoning. DOE officials said they were continuing the planning discussion with the Department of City Planning, adding that the capital budget factored in student growth and it would do so again before and after the city’s rezoning of Gowanus.

In March, the city released draft scope of work which projected the prospective rezoning of Gowanus will trigger the creation of an estimated 8,200 new apartments by 2035. The draft scope maps out the environmental impact study that must commence before the project can move into the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP.

After the meeting, Pinkard, who also is a member of the Gowanus Neighborhood Justice Coalition, said she felt the DOE officials had not answered her questions or dispelled her concerns. “Many times people bring [ideas] to us and say, ‘These are your options.’ And we think that we have to consider those options instead of getting together and figuring out another option that might be applicable to us or may work better for us. And so I think that one of the things that should be asked, whether it’s around housing or schooling, is, ‘Are there set-asides for those long-term residents and particularly those residents who are in public housing?'” said Pinkard.

Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice wants an “eco-district”

Following blackouts and inundated streets after a brutal heat wave and recent rains, Gowanus advocates want a rezoning that addresses climate change by creating what they call an “Environmental Special District” or an “eco-district” surrounding the 1.8-mile-long, 100-foot-wide canal as part of the rezoning proposal.

The Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice is concerned that the city’s proposed rezoning draft plan does not address the potential for increasing pollution in the canal, sewage overflow and energy demand.

According to the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, an estimated 377 million gallons a year of combined sewer overflow (CSO) is released into the Gowanus Canal during rain events. The combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, are triggered when rainwater is added to the flow of sewer pipes, which manage both wastewater and stormwater. The exact amount released during a rain event can vary depending on a number of factors, ranging from the duration and strength of a rain event to the amount of wastewater produced at a given time of day.

In the GNJC’s public comment on the draft environmental impact statement for the Gowanus rezoning, the coalition says the “Environmental Special District” better known as an “eco-district”  would “establish specific targets to ensure there is not a net increase in combined sewage overflow (CSO) and energy demand; invest in local parks and increase urban tree canopy; mitigate flooding and provide support for emergency preparedness; and improve health and social resiliency by addressing critical capital needs at the neighborhood’s three NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) campuses.”

“Red Hook and the Gowanus public housing residents have been environmentally burdened by indoor and outdoor toxins for decades. Before any rezoning takes place in Gowanus, we need assurances that the new development will have a net zero increase of sewage into the Gowanus Canal. We need an Environmental Special District—not a re-polluted canal and community,” Karen Blondel, member of Turning the Tide and GNJC, said in a press statement.

Local Councilmember Brad Lander supports the concerns of the advocacy groups but says many of the issues that have been raised are currently being addressed, or will be, in the rezoning proposal.

For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin its Superfund clean-up of the canal next summer. That will begin with removing contaminated sediment from the bottom of the Canal by dredging. The dredged areas will then be capped, including controls to reduce CSO discharges and other sources of pollution, according to the EPA website.

In DCP’s draft plan, the city says it will continue to support the cleanup of the canal, including plans for alternative solar energy uses, supporting a “district energy microgrid” (which distributes energy to connected buildings in a local area and used on-site, reducing reliance on the electric grid), waste management treatment and better drainage.

“We have received the coalition’s recommendations and look forward to continue engaging with community stakeholders as we move forward with a plan for a more resilient, inclusive and mixed use Gowanus,” said DCP spokesman Joe Marvilli.

Preserving the history of industry in Gowanus

Last month, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted in favor of calendaring five properties in Gowanus as individual landmarks: the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel Pumping Station and Gate House at 196 Butler Street; the Somers Brothers Tinware Factory (later Old American Can Factory) at 238-246 3rd Street; the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) Central Power Station Engine House at 153 2nd Street; the Montauk Paint Manufacturing Company Building at 170 2nd Avenue; and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Rogers Memorial Building at 233 Butler Street.

According to the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, these properties relate to the Gowanus Canal itself and to the industry and manufacturing that grew up around it in the late-19th and early-20th century. “For the first time in the face of a proposed city-initiated rezoning, vigorous strategic advocacy by a coalition of grassroots, neighborhood, and citywide advocates has led to the calendaring of a set of individual landmarks in the targeted neighborhood prior to the proposed rezoning,” said the organization in their press release.

During an earlier interview with City Limits, Landers was excited about the sites being calendared by the LPC but said he would also push for additional sites identified by the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, including the Roulston Grocery Warehouse on 9th St. and 2nd Avenue and the R.G. Dun & Company Building on Nevins and Butler streets. According to the coalition group, the Brooklyn neighborhood’s history includes a Native American fishing ground site and a Revolutionary War battlefield site that gave way to a booming port for the shipping and manufacturing industry, then an urban renewal area and finally the neighborhood that stands today.

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