Adi Talwar

The northwest view from the intersection of Baltic Street and 4th Avenue, an area covered by the city’s proposed rezoning.

For over five years, members of Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ) have worked together to make the case for a Gowanus rezoning based on principles of social, economic, environmental, and racial justice. We have focused on elevating the voices of the Gowanus community members who have not yet been heard in the city-led Gowanus planning process, particularly residents from NYCHA’s Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Gardens, and Warren Street Houses. Over the past three months the pain of losing family, friends, and neighbors to the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacts local public housing residents; the plight of our struggling neighborhood businesses; the need for quality jobs for local residents; and the need for adequate open public spaces in a neighborhood with fragile income and housing security have reaffirmed our commitment to working together toward a resilient and equitable Gowanus. 

The vision the de Blasio administration has put forth for the Gowanus rezoning focuses on advancing a thriving, inclusive, and more resilient Gowanus. For this vision to truly be realized, targeted policy changes and investments are needed more than ever to address systemic racism and its related disparities in a community where a history of redlining, environmental injustice, disinvestment, and more recently displacement, speculative investment, and extreme inequality lead to unequal access to health, housing, quality jobs, prosperity, and wellbeing.

The pandemic has created significant budget deficits and fiscal strain at all levels of government, but the city must resist making cuts in capital spending. That strategy has proven to be short-sighted since savings aren’t realized immediately and these cuts can lead to job losses now and greater expenses later. As part of restarting the rezoning process the city must commit to significant resourcesfor the pressing social, environmental, and economic needs in the Gowanus neighborhood—especially those of low-income people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by both long-standing disinvestment and the current crises. Capital investment now will infuse the economy while supporting dire community needs for safe housing, infrastructure, and community space.

If and when the city restarts the Gowanus rezoning process, officials must consider the tough lessons of the pandemic, the long fight for racial justice, the voices of those most impacted, and the understanding that there are more climate-related crises to come. The groundswell of broad support for the Black Lives Matter movement across the city amplifies the urgent need not only for police reforms, but for substantial and sustainable investment in human and social infrastructure to address long-standing racial inequalities and injustice in our neighborhood.

The lessons of the pandemic & the fight for racial justice solidify GNCJ’s demands for Gowanus:

●There must be funding and an implementation plan with significant resident input to address critical unmet capital needs at Wyckoff Gardens and Gowanus Houses, where residents have experienced years of unsafe, deteriorating living conditions. These residents have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic and are experiencing long-term housing insecurity combined with more recent job and food insecurity. The city must take responsibility for these public housing developments by securing resources to improve conditions caused by racist policies leading to years of neglect.

●     The city must invest in the health and social resilience of Gowanus neighbors.  Closed  Community Centers—critical lifelines for resources for residents—represent structural racism. GNCJ has long pushed for sustainable funding and programming at the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens Community Centers. A closer analysis of social resilience, health outcomes, and needs for Gowanus must be conducted. To address local health disparities and disaster risks, the lessons of the pandemic must inform a Racial Equity Assessment and Community Health Needs Assessment.

●     Gowanus has faced one crisis after another—industrial contamination, redlining, Hurricane Sandy, COVID-19—each with lasting impacts.   In Gowanus, these impacts are compounded by environmental risks that include a lack of urban canopy, high groundwater, an inadequate sewer system, frequent flooding, and a changing climate. With hot summer months ahead and significant storms predicted for this hurricane season, the city must support development of a Community Emergency Preparedness Plan, harnessing the community’s intelligence and experience to better prepare for the next crisis.

●     There is no better time than now to address the unique environmental conditions and injustices in Gowanus by recognizing the need and providing resources for an Environmental Justice Special District that mitigates risks and advances equity by planning for Net Zero CSO (combined sewer overflow) in the canal, coastal resiliency, and jobs for locals in emerging green spaces. 

●     The city must ensure that new development in Gowanus makes our neighborhood more livable by increasing shade and access to public open space through strategies like the Waterfront Access Plan, requiring new developments to plant street trees, and investing in new and improved public parks. Parks, street trees, and other green infrastructure soak up stormwater to reduce flooding and sewage overflow, provide shade, cool our streets, and reduce air pollution. We need more green spaces that are accessible and welcoming to all residents.

●     The city must protect and support neighborhood jobs and businesses. This pandemic has underscored the critical need for our local manufacturers who provide and deliver essential goods as well as the need to train and elevate the diverse next generation of manufacturing workers. Our industrial employers will need the city’s help to relaunch and navigate the many complex challenges ahead. Therefore, before the Community Board 6 ULURP hearing, the city must complete the Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) visioning planning process and outline investment commitments in the IBZ including (1) workforce development funds, (2) critical infrastructure improvements, and (3) land use changes that protect and help industry grow.

●     The community must have a voice in shaping the next steps of the Gowanus planning process. Social distancing guidelines will make it more difficult for effective and inclusive community involvement in the ULURP process. The city must work with neighborhood stakeholders, including GNCJ, to ensure that community voices are equitably heard and prioritized. If comments and testimony are expected to be made online, access to technology must be made available, particularly for public housing residents.

●     As the pandemic shuttered city operations, the Department of City Planning was expected to release the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, an analysis of cumulative impacts for multiple development sites. With no EIS to review, we cannot assess whether infrastructure needs, mitigation planning, or fair housing goals will be addressed in the rezoning. GNCJ and other stakeholders have provided extensive feedback about the shortcomings of the Scope of Work for the Draft EIS. We must see what feedback has been incorporated.  

Our urban reality has changed dramatically from the time GNCJ began discussions about what a justice-based rezoning of Gowanus would look like, but our priorities have not and we continue to ask for public endorsement of these demands via our GNCJ petition to Mayor Bill de Blasio.  Our shared platform was developed with long, inclusive, thoughtful, and sometimes difficult conversations. The COVID-19 pandemic and movement for racial justice have laid bare systemic racism and its disproportionate impacts and highlight how accurate GNCJ has been in describing the weaknesses that need to be addressed in our neighborhood. 

The de Blasio administration must recommit to advancing its first rezoning in what is now a majority white, middle-income neighborhood (see footnote), and ensure that the vision of a thriving, inclusive, and resilient Gowanus is actually realized. In February GNCJ said, “We won’t back down.” Now we say, “We can’t back down.”

This statement was written collaboratively through the efforts of a larger membership group of the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ)a racially and socioeconomically diverse coalition of stakeholders focused on equity, inclusion, economic and environmental sustainability and justice in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Authors include: Monica Underwood, president of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE); Paula Smith, resident of Wyckoff Gardens; Sandra Garcia, vice-president of Warren Street Houses Resident Association; Tracey Pinkard, resident of Gowanus Houses and co-founder of Gowanus Houses Arts Collective; Karen Blondel, environmental justice organizer from Turning the Tide (T3); Sabine Aronowsky, program coordinator at Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC); SJ Avery, member of  Park Slope Civic Council (PSCC); Lynn Neuman, steering committee member from 350Brooklyn; Ben Margolis, executive director of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation (SBIDC); and Andrea Parker, executive director of  Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC)

Note: The 2003 and 2007 North and South Park Slope rezonings—which Bill de Blasio voted for as a City Council member—did not include mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH). Weak rent laws, speculative investment and displacement changed Gowanus from a majority lower-income Latino to a majority middle-income white community over the last 15 years. Due to MIH, the Certificate of No Harassment, Tenant Right to Counsel, the Gowanus Green project and stronger rent laws, a rezoning of Gowanus today would lead to increased racial and economic diversity.