This planned rezoning is part of the all-too-familiar de Blasio approach of targeting working class neighborhoods, industrial hubs, and communities of color for luxury condo development.

Courtesy of Voice of Gowanus

Public Place, a section of Gowanus where some in support of the rezoning would like to build affordable housing and a school.

A recent opinion piece co-authored by Councilmember Brad Lander in City Limits entitled “How the Gowanus Rezoning Could Push NYC Forward on Racial Equity” attempted to hold up this Mayor Bill de Blasio-led rezoning proposal as an answer to systemic racism. Unfortunately, this planned rezoning is part of the all-too-familiar de Blasio approach of targeting working class neighborhoods, industrial hubs, and communities of color for luxury condo development (see: Inwood, East Harlem, East New York). The arguments put forward by Lander and his co-authors Michelle de la Uz and Barika Williams mislead and distract from current racial and environmental justice issues in Gowanus.

Conceived well before the onset of COVID-19, the proposed Gowanus rezoning proposal plans to bring 20,000 new residents into a FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area that experiences flooding on a regular basis, including during Hurricane Sandy. Although Lander has represented much of Gowanus for 11 years, he has failed to get the city to enact any significant flood mitigation or the federally-mandated plan to stop the city from dumping 363 million gallons of raw sewage into the Gowanus Canal every year. While Lander attempts to present this rezoning in terms of racial equity, he has refused to even take a position on the city’s latest attempts to delay fixing the Gowanus watershed’s sewage problem until the year 2032. How can it be equitable or just to allow more New Yorkers, including some of the most historically-disenfranchised citizens, to suffer the health consequences of living next to an open sewer that floods?

The data presented in the op-ed about the racial demographics and the median income of Gowanus, which Lander frames as a “wealthy, white” neighborhood, are not from Gowanus.  Instead, they are actually demographics for all of Community Board 6, a much larger area that also includes affluent Cobble Hill and Park Slope. As their names suggest, those neighborhoods sit atop hillsides. But down in the drainage basin known as Gowanus, this low-lying part of the district has actually been designated a distressed low-income “economic opportunity zone.” The neighborhood’s most densely-populated areas, encompassed by census tracts 71 and 127, are less than 35 percent white and with a median household income of less than $50,000—a stark contrast to the figures cited in Lander’s op-ed even though the data source is the same (American Community Survey 2018 5-Year Estimates).

Gowanus has also suffered from “planner’s blight” because the specter of a rezoning has loomed for more than a decade. The demographics have changed in part because low-income residents were squeezed out as real estate speculators sensed another de Blasio luxury wave coming. Even with that displacement, City Comptroller and mayoral hopeful Scott Stringer identifies the area around the Gowanus Canal as “home mostly to working-class people of color” in a September 23 letter decrying the fact that “the area has been subject to decades of environmental abuse and neglect.”   

While Lander co-sponsored pending legislation by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams requiring a racial impact study for any city-led rezoning, Lander has not called for such a study when it comes to Gowanus. In fact, Lander has ignored a call by leading community organizations and his constituents to require such a study, and the rezone map actually excludes 10,000 residents in Gowanus NYCHA communities. The proposal fails to examine the impacts of the rezone on NYCHA residents or require any benefits in terms of desperately needed infrastructure investment or quality jobs. 

Perhaps the most tragically misguided aspect of this proposal is the affordable housing complex and school that Lander and his private development partners want to construct on a site called Public Place, which environmental experts have identified as the most polluted site in Gowanus. With cancer-causing coal tar running over 100 feet deep into the soil, the proposed building site is not being fully remediated. In fact, the entities responsible for this toxic waste just downgraded their containment plan in August without any public comment from Lander. The proposed building site is located right next to the Gowanus Canal, where water rife with bacterial and chemical contaminants will be a perpetual flood risk. Placing so-called affordable housing here is not environmentally just or safe.

The winners of the Gowanus rezone will be, as usual, private developers, who stand to receive multiple tax breaks and credits while foisting added impacts and costs on the neighborhood. The op-ed failed to mention the immense give-away of tax dollars and incentives being granted to developers, such as state brownfields credits and tax abatements, that will extend decades into the future. Real estate interests snapped up industrial sites in a land rush as soon as city officials indicated a rezoning might happen, pushing out local businesses that have been in the area for generations. Perhaps Lander’s silence on this part of the plan is tied to the tens of thousands of dollars he received as campaign contributions in 2017 from real estate developers when this rezone plan was being conceived.

As New York City faces historic levels of apartment vacancy and a dizzying drop in tax revenue, we need political leaders with courage to chart a new course for a post-de Blasio era. Building more luxury condo high rises is not a vision of an equitable or viable future. And wrapping the proposed Gowanus Rezoning in misleading data and hollow rhetoric won’t change the simple fact that this plan is completely out of step with our current COVID-19 reality from the economics on down. We ask our fellow New Yorkers to join us in demanding a better plan for Gowanus, and all of New York City, that truly meets the current moment.

The authors are affiliated with Voice of Gowanus, a community group of concerned citizens and local activists whose founding members helped secure the EPA Superfund remediation for the Gowanus Canal, and continues the fight for social and environmental justice.

Councilmember Brad Lander’s office responds: Brad has not taken a dime from developers who own property in the Gowanus area since the start of the community planning conversations about the future of the neighborhood dating back almost a decade. And since 2018, when active conversations about the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning began, Brad has gone a step further and committed to reject contributions from all for-profit real estate developers and lobbyists – with interests anywhere in the city.

Brad is a long-time, steadfast leader in the work to confront and limit the outsized power of the real-estate industry in New York City, including campaigns to reform 421-a tax breaks for developers, win a ‘certificate of no harassment’ program, strengthen rent regulations, lower campaign contribution limits, and pass the most stringent law prohibiting dark money spending in the country. Every one of these campaigns was opposed by the real estate industry. Brad did not back down a single time.  

In 2013, Brad Lander convened an unprecedented, years-long community planning process called ‘Bridging Gowanus’ that brought together hundreds of residents and local stakeholders to build a consensus on a vision for a far more inclusive, integrated, affordable community than the one we have today. Brad heartily welcomes debate about the Gowanus rezoning proposal and more allies into the work to make sure that it’s communities, not developers, who determine the future of our city.

The authors respond to Lander’s statement: Brad Lander conveniently fails to address the tens of thousands of dollars he received from real estate developers in 2017. A recent investigation of public campaign records revealed that he received more than $130,000 from real estate interests, including from executives of companies profiting from rezonings and gentrification all across New York City. 

Lander received 21 max donations from executives at the Related Companies (developers of Hudson Yards), six max donations from those associated with Two Trees Management (developers of DUMBO; owners of Lowes/Pathmark site in Gowanus), five max donations from associates of Silverstein Properties, and two from Forest City Ratner (developers of Atlantic Yards). Further, while Mr Lander has laudably stood in favor of campaign contribution limits from individuals doing business with the City, he has embraced taking maximum contributions from their family members. For instance, while the chairman and CEO of Two Trees Management, David and Jed Walentas, contributed $250 each, their wives contributed the maximum of $2,750 each. 

While Two Trees didn’t finish closing on their Gowanus site until 2018, is Mr Lander really trying to suggest he was unaware of the plans and rezoning objectives of some of the most powerful developers in New York City who had directly supported his re-election? Mr. Lander’s “campaign” to reform 421-a tax breaks for developers has completely failed Gowanus, where developers of the proposed new luxury apartment towers will be exempt from paying property taxes for at least the next 25 years, further eroding tax revenue that should go towards neighborhood infrastructure, including renovations for our NYCHA communities.   

Voice of Gowanus members participated in the “Bridging Gowanus” discussions referenced by Mr. Lander and were dismayed to see that the key issues raised by the community during that process—many of which are outlined in our op-ed piece—were not addressed in the Gowanus Rezone proposal released by the city and supported by Mr. Lander.

If Mr. Lander is serious about representing his community and outlining a vision for a safe and equitable future, we call upon him to return his 2017 real estate industry contributions, stop advocating for luxury apartment development, and start addressing the alarming health and safety issues facing Gowanus by withdrawing his support of this unjust rezoning proposal.