‘The city, public officials, and developers have all built an increasingly fevered false sense of urgency that shows just how desperate they are to ram through the rezoning while the public is sidelined by the pandemic, economic crisis, and weak sauce virtual hearings.’

Adi Talwar

A view of the Northern end of Gowanus Canal. The city restarted discussions this fall for rezoning a large swath of the Brooklyn neighborhood. (Adi Talwar)

Myth 1​: “The Gowanus cleanup started so the Canal is fine now.”

Reality: Wrong. Dredging the toxic “black mayonnaise” sediments started in November 2020, but it will take another decade before the Gowanus Canal is entirely cleaned of this foul, dangerous stuff. And beyond the legacy of industrial pollutants, don’t forget the second part of the Canal’s rather sh*tty problem: over 360 million gallons of untreated wastewater pour from toilets and sinks into the waterway every year when it rains. Tanks to divert this putrid flow​​ won’t be operative until after 2032​– and they’re only designed to handle the current volume, not the future increased flow likely from the overdeveloped neighborhood envisioned by the rezoning. Where will all the poo go? And the idea that new development will help get the canal cleaned faster? ​Fuggetaboutit.​ Developers fought ​against​ getting the canal cleaned up in the first place. Passing the proposed rezoning is not sustainable.

Myth 2​: “Opponents of the rezoning oppose affordable housing.”

Reality​: Nothing could be further from the truth. While many in Gowanus oppose the scale, procedural irregularities, toxic sites, and overall arrogance and hubris baked into the proposed rezoning, none oppose affordable housing. Just because someone has a different sense of how​ to address the affordable housing issue does not mean that person is against affordable housing. But this tired phrase is hefted like a sword to cut down those who find folly in the rezoning’s massive reliance on luxury residential to provide a pittance of so-called affordable housing. It’s used like a shield to defend the placement of housing units on one of the most toxic sites in the state – the Public Place site that is not being fully cleaned of its carcinogenic coal tar, something​​ an EPA official finds deeply disturbing.​ In the end, it’s clear that developers realize this is their last chance in the de Blasio era to grab a rezone goodie bag, and they will shout affordable housing until they are blue in the face to grease the skids for luxury residential buildings.

Myth 3​: “The Gowanus rezoning is all about affordable housing.”

Reality​: Nope. Beware that Trojan Horse phrase of choice – politicians and developers love it. A majority of the units that would be created in the rezoning would be market-rate luxury residential. Only certain buildings would be required to participate in MIH (mandatory inclusionary housing), and​ that flawed program​ only requires 25 percent so-called “affordable” units. So, 75 percent of the large residential towers would not be affordable. The one sizable proposed housing complex with some truly affordable units​​ would be located on one of the most toxic sites in the state, ​Public Place—a site that is not being fully remediated of its carcinogenic coal tar plumes. It is not safe for human habitation.

Myth 4​: “Gowanus is a white, wealthy neighborhood.”

Reality​: Just because public officials and news outlets keep saying this doesn’t make it so. We’ve ​​had to correct City Council members.​ Gowanus’ demographics* are not the convenient monolith that rezoning proponents like to frame it as; it is a neighborhood with many different pockets of residential and many different kinds of people. The impacted area includes 10,000 NYCHA residents who stand to gain little from the rezone (beyond a council member push for funding that was already promised years ago), aside from losing the local shops and services these neighbors rely on, and 10 years of construction and heavy drilling, leading to poor air quality and potential exposure to harmful toxins. In fact, wealthy developers will be given millions of taxpayer dollars to help build their luxury towers—money that would much better be spent giving NYCHA residents the repairs they so desperately need. To the extent Gowanus is whiter and wealthier than it was a decade ago, much of that change is due to displacement of the Latinx community that followed the 2003 upzoning of Fourth Avenue in Park Slope (passed while Bill de Blasio was our councilmember). When someone repeats this phrase, require them to specify what they are talking about: the area being rezoned, the area that will be impacted by the rezoning, or the entire geography covered by Brooklyn Community Board 6? And ask what is being done to prevent additional displacement. Pin them down – make sure they explain what area they are actually talking about.

Myth 5​: “The need for the Gowanus rezoning is urgent.”

Reality​: It’s clearly not. The city, public officials, and developers have all built an increasingly fevered false sense of urgency that shows just how desperate they are to ram through the rezoning while the public is sidelined by the pandemic, economic crisis, and weak sauce virtual hearings. What this rhetorical framing device is truly all about: making sure the rezoning passes before the terms of Mayor de Blasio and Councilmembers Brad Lander and Stephen Levin end. It’s entirely political and rapacious. The rezoning was developed for developers in an entirely different pre-pandemic paradigm driven by a much different economic landscape. The accounts on Twitter chanting this line like coin-operated dolls need not be heeded. There’s no rush. With a proposal of this scale and impact, it is much more important to do it right than to do it quickly. That means after a racial impact study is completed prior to certification—and after we can understand the implications of the pandemic and economic crisis on the future of the city.

The authors are members of the grassroots community coalition Voice of Gowanus. The organization has filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s Gowanus rezoning proposal.

*Editor’s Note: The debate over the Gowanus rezoning has included a debate over how to define the boundaries of the neighborhood, and its demographics, at least in terms of rezoning impact. Read more in this discussion:

Updated 2/11/21: Gowanus Green Partners, the group slated to develop the Public Place/Gowanus Green site, responded to the above op-ed with the following statement:

“In a glib piece filled with misleading assertions, there are two points directly related to the Gowanus Green project that we would like to address. First, we are working with an array of city, state and federal agencies on the scope of our additional site investigation. All of those agencies will need to endorse our environmental cleanup plans, thus ensuring that the remediation of the site will make it safe to occupy. Casting doubt on whether the site can be cleaned displays ignorance of the legally required process for how remediation and development happens in New York City. Second, regarding the urgency of the overall rezoning: while some are eager to delay the construction of 3,000 permanently affordable homes, families experiencing homelessness and hundreds more who will have access to affordable housing at Gowanus Green would likely disagree.”