‘This plan did not start in a developer’s office, or at City Hall. It started through community planning, a series of public conversations that generated core principles for what inclusive, sustainable growth in the neighborhood would require.’

Adi Talwar

A view of Gowanus.

A shrill debate surrounds most rezonings in New York City. Skeptical neighbors protest loudly— not without reason—about displacement, strained infrastructure, soulless towers, and enriched developers. Meanwhile, a pro-growth coalition argues—also not without reason—that if we defer to neighborhood opposition, we won’t build any new housing anywhere, creating an even less affordable and more segregated city.

So it might surprise you that this month, when a community coalition of artists, tenants, homeowners, environmental advocates, and faith leaders rallied outside City Hall in advance of the first rezoning of the de Blasio Administration in a majority white community—the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning—they weren’t rallying against the plan. Instead, neighbors rallied to celebrate the wins secured by organizing that will ensure that the things they love about our neighborhood are strengthened and preserved as we welcome new neighbors.

It turns out, having real conversations with community stakeholders all along the way leads to far better outcomes—for the neighborhood, for the city, and for our shared goals.

The Gowanus Rezoning is the first neighborhood-wide rezoning to apply Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) to create affordable units in a whiter, wealthier community. It’s also the first to undergo a racial impact study, with data showing that the new affordable housing the rezoning will generate will lead to a more racially and economically integrated community.

The Gowanus rezoning will bring 8,000 new units of housing, including 3,000 below market rate units affordable to low-income and working-class families, mixed-use commercial and industrial and artist space,as well as new sewer, school, transit, and park infrastructure to the shores of the Gowanus Canal. With a U.S. EPA-ordered Superfund cleanup of the canal underway, this plan represents a proactive intervention by neighbors and advocates to shape the trajectory of growth in an already changing area.

This plan did not start in a developer’s office, or at City Hall. It started through community planning, a series of public conversations that generated core principles for what inclusive, sustainable growth in the neighborhood would require.

The NYC Department of City Planning then worked with the community around these principles, with five working groups open to all residents, being honest about areas of disagreement and building toward consensus. As a result, their plan includes new zoning tools for arts and industry and new schools, landmarking to preserve historic structures, and a vibrant and resilient shorefront design.

Meanwhile, the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice brought together a multi-racial and economically diverse group of public housing residents, affordable housing proponents, civic, environmental and faith leaders, artists, and industrial business advocates who forged common demands out of many different interests. Their bottom-line demands were reflected by three large red check-marks on the banner they brought to City Hall earlier this month:

  • Fix our local NYCHA homes
  • No new Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO)
  • Ensure accountability

They demanded that new development help to clean rather than further pollute the Canal. That community oversight would be built in for the long term. And most important: that all of the apartments in the neighboring public housing developments receive the comprehensive rehab they have long-needed and deserve.

The local community board, Brooklyn’s CB6, overwhelmingly voted “yes with modifications,” demonstrating an unprecedented willingness to accept growth if the community’s priorities for real affordability, for sustainable infrastructure, for a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood were met.

This isn’t usually how things go with rezonings. It often seems like we can’t get the balance right between larger citywide goals and what people want in their neighborhoods. That real estate developers set the agenda, and all communities can do is react. That there’s little hope for creating a less segregated, more affordable, more sustainable city. We’ve called it the “REBNY-NIMBY doom loop.”

But in Gowanus, through a years-long process of community planning and organizing, we were able to forge a remarkable amount of consensus and build the trust that is so critical to doing so, that was ultimately reflected in the “Points of Agreement” document negotiated with City Hall.

What’s the lesson here? That we are capable of planning together for a fairer city. That many people will accept growth in their neighborhood if they are a real part of the planning process. That if we start from shared values, rather than a developer’s proposal, we can agree to combat segregation and invest in sustainability.

Of course, inclusive planning can’t be done only on a neighborhood scale, because so many of the daunting challenges we face—affordability, segregation, aging infrastructure, and the climate crisis—require balancing broader citywide needs with the things people love and want to protect about their neighborhoods.

New York City should commit to comprehensive planning, with communities, grounded in shared values and a data-driven look at the city’s future. Many other cities already do this, and the City Council has laid out a proposal for what it could look like.

Some developers worry that a comprehensive plan will give communities too much say. Some community leaders who are skeptical of growth worry that agreeing on shared citywide values might create pressure for change in their neighborhoods.

Maybe they’re both right. The Gowanus Rezoning shows how that could be a big win for the future of our city.

Michelle de la Uz is the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee. Brad Lander is a City Councilmember representing Brooklyn’s 39th District (including Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and Gowanus) and the comptroller-elect.

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