The last de Blasio rezoning is moving into a public review, where the pros and cons of virtual engagement will be on display.

Adi Talwar

Properties on the western shore of Gowanus Canal between Sackett, Degraw and Douglass Streets. NYCHA Gowanus Houses are visible in the background from center to right of frame.

The last in Mayor de Blasio’s controversial series of rezoning plans is the subject of intense debate about the fairness of virtual public engagement and the virtues and shortcomings of the city’s plan.

The Gowanus rezoning has been the focus of dozens of community engagement meetings since 2016 among residents, community groups, local elected officials, stakeholders and the city administration.

The de Blasio administration’s current plan spans 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. Last year, the city projected that the rezoning would trigger the creation of an estimated 8,200 new apartments by 2035. 

When the pandemic struck, Gowanus was waiting for the completion of a draft environmental impact statement to trigger the start of the formal land-use review process. After the city shut down its Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure to avoid public gatherings amid COVID-19, there were fears the rezoning might stall for good, given the dwindling time left in de Blasio’s tenure.

In July, however, the city announced it was restarting the process. New York will begin remote meetings through a new “virtual” portal system this month.

Some stakeholders, like the Voice of Gowanus coalition, say ULURP should stay paused until the city can come up with a better way to hold public hearings. “The virtual hearings and practices recently rushed into use by other city agencies indicate that, especially in the context of ULURP for an entire neighborhood, attendees’ collective power would be severely diluted through the use of an online platform,” the group wrote in an  August letter to Department of City Planning Director and City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago. “Structurally diluting a community’s ability to hold power accountable during the current Covid-19 crisis, when the future of our entire neighborhood and its interconnected communities is at stake, is unacceptable.”

Concerned about impact

Voice of Gowanus is concerned about more than the process. They also take issue with the current rezoning plan. One of the group’s biggest demands is to stop the rezoning until there is a total clean up of the Gowanus Canal and its surrounding area. They also want one of the rezoning sites, a contaminated vacant city-owned site at the corner of Smith and 5th Streets known as Public Place, to become a public park. 

The city plans on developing 774 housing units and a small park on the six-acre contaminated site. Hudson companies will develop the site along with the following partners Bluestone Organization, Fifth Avenue Committee and Jonathan Rose Companies* (Fifth Avenue Committee’s executive director is Michelle De La Uz who is also a member of the City Planning Commission. De La Uz has recused herself from any CPC discussion on the Gowanus rezoning plan.)

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the clean-up of the Gowanus Canal, a superfund site, is scheduled to start in September of this year. 

Voices of Gowanus argues Public Place site needs to be completely cleaned up before the construction of housing or any other project on the city-owned property. The group also argues the site was designated for a park in 1974, and they want that commitment honored.

The specific criticisms are part of a broader concern that the rezoning will invite wholesale change to the area.

“I’ve seen the neighborhood change as gentrification starts setting in–seeing little shops close, I’ve seen laundromats close, I’ve seen the population started changing and this is before the rezoning,” said Margerat Maugenest, co-founder of Friends of Greater Gowanus (FROGG). “This is before the condos get here and the whole population changes.”

“I’ve witnessed this since I first moved here in 1984,” she continues. “I could take a walk, around several blocks and I would see Latinos, Blacks, Italians, a whole mixture of people. That’s what I love about New York and now you don’t see that as much. But if you start talking about building 22- to 30-story structures and other real estate projects — the economics of the neighborhoods changes.”

Another demand by Voices of Gowanus is for the completion of a racial impact study before the rezoning takes place. 

A city law requiring such studies was proposed last year by Public Advocate Jummaane Williams and has yet to be voted on. Local Councilmember Brad Lander has shown support for the legislation. 

Lander has spearheaded the rezoning with the support of the neighboring Councilmember Stephen Levin. During the late Spring and early summer, he pushed for the ULURP process to begin out of fear the rezoning would be stalled permanently. 

Lander has championed changes to the city’s rezoning plan. He says the community demands made by the Gowanus Neighborhood Justice Coalition have to be met in order for the rezoning to move forward and be successful. 

This February, GNJC laid out the specifics of over a dozen demands. One was for upfront funding to meet all capital needs at NYCHA’s Warren Street Houses, Wyckoff Gardens and Gowanus Houses (WWG) , with local NYCHA tenants and low-income residents hired as part of the work. Another demand is for the city to mandate net zero Combined Sewage Overflow from new construction. The coalition also wants an Environmental Justice Special District with a diverse local oversight board to oversee implementation of all city commitments and developer requirements.

Lawmaker: No time to pause

But Lander does not believe a pause would bring about a better rezoning; instead, he says, slowing down would mean no rezoning at all.

“Pushing to pause the rezoning and prevent it from moving forward during this term is the same as pushing to prevent it and stop any development from taking place. That’s just what it is,” says Lander. 

To Lander, the Gowanus rezoning sets a standard of equitable city planning for future city administrations to meet: “This rezoning holds potential to be a fair housing rezoning,” he said in a recent interview with City Limits. “It can help propel our process forward, in a way that advances racial equity and how we think about land use.” It is particularly significant, he says, because it is the only rezoning undertaken by the de Blasio administration that would affect a predominantly white and affluent neighborhood.

The Gowanus rezoning effort is part of the de Blasio administration housing plan to create and preserve 300,000 affordable housing units, partly through rezoning neighborhoods across the city. 

Initially, the mayor sought to rezone 15 communities. So far, six neighborhoods—East New York in Brooklyn, Downtown Far Rockaway in Queens, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, Bay Street in Staten Island and the Manhattan neighborhoods of Inwood and East Harlem—have seen large-scale rezonings. 

Earlier this year, other neighborhoods slated for a city-initiated rezoning halted. In the Bronx, local Councilmember Rafael Salamanca opposed the Southern Boulevard rezoning without a racial impact study which would analyze the impact of rezonings on city’s ethnic groups and in Brooklyn, the Bushwick rezoning plan came to a deadlock due to disagreements between the city administration and local elected officials and community members. 

That means Gowanus would almost certainly be the last rezoning pursued by the de Blasio administration, which leaves office at the end of 2021. 

According to the Department of City Planning, the agency is still working on the draft environmental impact statement for the Gowanus rezoning.

* Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that Gowanus Canal Conservancy was part of this development team.