Reluctant supporters say the 82-block upzoning proposal is flawed, but will nonetheless create thousands of below-market rate apartments. Others are demanding the plan includes funding for nearby NYCHA demands, while a third group of critics is against the rezoning altogether.

David Brand

The Gowanus Canal

When it comes to New York City’s plan to rezone the low-rise neighborhood of Gowanus, three prevailing viewpoints have emerged, with each well represented at a marathon public hearing on the city’s land use proposal Thursday.

In one camp, there are reluctant supporters who say the 82-block upzoning has its flaws but will nonetheless create thousands of below-market rate apartments that the neighborhood cannot pass up as property values and rents soar. The second group includes residents and advocates who say they will withhold their support unless the city funds nearly $300 million in repairs at two local public housing complexes and permanently prevents raw sewage from spilling into the toxic Gowanus Canal.  

And in the third, there are the outright opponents who say the plan to increase the population by allowing towers up to 30-stories tall will forever alter the character of the community while ceding too much power to private developers, with little in return.

Those perspectives converged at the joint public hearing, a mandatory component of the city’s Universal Land Use Review Process (ULURP), held by Brooklyn Community Boards 2 and 6. The hearing took place virtually and in-person at Park Slope’s Washington Park after a Brooklyn judge ruled that the city could not conduct the ULURP process solely through Zoom, after rezoning opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the online-only format.   The hybrid hearing led to some unique developments — like a brief rain delay, locals testifying to a camera inside the Old Stone House and a former resident chiming in virtually while riding a bicycle along a sunny Southern California street. 

Councilmember Brad Lander, whose vote will likely determine the fate of the proposal, counts himself among the first camp — the group who says the project isn’t perfect, but will bring much-needed affordable housing to the community, which hasn’t been rezoned since the 1960s.

“There is a lot of distrust about rezonings and with good reason. It feels like communities aren’t given a voice, like developers get what they want, like the affordable housing isn’t really affordable,” Lander said. “I understand and often share that skepticism. But we also know that we’re called on to find smart sustainable ways to strengthen the neighborhoods we love while doing more to make them inclusive and affordable and secure a more vibrant future for our city.”

“I believe the Gowanus neighborhood rezoning, if we get it right, has the potential to do that,” he continued.

Getting it right, he said, means securing potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for badly needed capital improvements at the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens Houses.

Owen Foote, a community leader and the founder of the Gowanus Dredgers, testified that he too supports the plan and encouraged the city to include funding for the local NYCHA complexes. Foote said the affordable housing commitment, even if it’s half the current stated total, left him with “no choice but to support this, despite the shortcomings.” City officials predict the rezoning would lead to the creation of an estimated 8,200 new apartments by 2035, 3,000 of them permanently affordable under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) program.

Foote, whose organization takes people onto the Gowanus Canal and educates New Yorkers about local waterways, also called for it to include better  boat access to the polluted channel.

Other supporters include Fazal Karmali, board chair at the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, who said “a districtwide Gowanus rezoning offers a promising opportunity to make progress toward a more just and green neighborhood.” Karmali also called for the formation of a task force to “hold developers accountable for all the commitments of the rezoning” including creation of affordable housing creation, preservation of industrial space and remediation of toxic soil.

Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development Land Use Policy Coordinator Chris Walters characterized the Gowanus plan as different from past neighborhood-level rezonings pursued by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Those earlier proposals transformed predominantly low- and middle-income communities, like East New York or the blocks around Jerome Avenue, while this one aims to upzone a predominantly white and relatively wealthy section of Brooklyn, he said.

“This is the first of those rezonings we feel can advance racial equity in our city, but only if it is done right,” Walters said, adding that the proposal would create “more affordable housing in a higher ratio than is being produced today in a whiter and wealthier community district, bringing affordable housing to a wider range of households.”

He added, however, that the city must commit “upfront funding for full capital needs to local public housing” at a cost of about $274 million.

That funding remains a key demand for various residents and stakeholders, particularly the people impacted — residents of the Gowanus and Wyckoff Gardens apartments like tenant leaders Karen Blondel and Monica Underwood.

Both Blondel and Underwood said the city not only needs to pay for the repairs, they need to eliminate references to the private management plan known as Rental Assistance Demonstration from the rezoning proposal.

“We continue to reject the privatization of public housing included in the draft statements,” said Underwood, president of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. 

In a statement to City Limits, de Blasio spokesperson Mitch Schwartz said the city would fund “priority capital improvements” at the Wyckoff and Gowanus Houses but did not specify the amount of money they would allocate. 

“We’re absolutely committed to shaping this rezoning to the public’s benefit. That includes working throughout the ULURP process to incorporate priority capital improvements to the NYCHA buildings in the area,” Schwartz said. “We know that’s a critical part of making this neighborhood plan successful.”

Several speakers, including many members of the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, outlined two other demands: a task force to hold the city and developers accountable to their affordable housing and environmental pledges, and “net zero” combined sewer overflow into the canal.

During rainstorms, waste surges out of the sewer system and pours into the polluted waterway. The city says new sewage tanks will manage much of that filth, as will design elements included in any new buildings, like underground tanks that store waste water and street design that limits run-off. 

In a letter last month, Lander, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez and other local leaders urged the federal Environmental Protection Agency to examine the city’s environmental pledges and ensure they meet the Superfund requirements.

Dozens of others pushed back against the rezoning proposal, with various opponents citing potential environmental consequences of adding density and concentrating lower-income housing on already-contaminated land. 

“I want to support this plan, I really do, but there is something rotten in Denmark,” said Community Board 6 member Briget Rein. “For me to give my vote of approval for this rezoning I told myself I would need assurances on two things: proof that Gowanus Canal cleanup would be done before a resident moved in and proof that existing infrastructure could handle it.”

Others, conditioned by decades of developer-friendly land use plans, said they do not trust the commitments to affordable housing or environmental justice. A handful said the plan will warp the character of the existing neighborhood and turn it into a community akin to nearby Downtown Brooklyn, where skyscrapers tower on the horizon, just past the end of the canal.

“Community board members are being asked to make a huge decision to transform Gowanus in a way that will make it unrecognizable in a few years,” said Debbie Stoller, a member of Voice of Gowanus. “Hudson Yards is 28 acres. The Gowanus rezone encompasses 110 acres … We will end up as one of the neighborhoods that’s the tallest and densest in the borough.”

The promised affordable housing will only, at most, account for one of every four units, she said, leaving the others at market rate. 

“This is how we’re going to create a white wealthy neighborhood,” Stoller said. “Right now Gowanus isn’t even a white wealthy neighborhood. That’s a lie.”

No speaker put their opposition more bluntly than Robert Maloney, a 71-year-old artist who said he has lived in Gowanus his entire life.

“We are priced out and what you’re doing to this city is garbage, just like what flows from the city of Park Slope down into that canal — sewage and garbage,” Maloney said. “America needs to preserve its rich past, and to create a freaking gargantuan, ugly, modern building is the last thing we need.”

“Cut this out now,” he continued. “I don’t care who you are. I don’t want your money. I dont want to see you. I don’t want to hear you.”