A dedicated task force and newly selected facilitator will be empowered to hold the city and private developers accountable to more than 50 “points of agreement” drafted to secure final support for the Gowanus transformation plan, which included a pledge to fund nearby NYCHA repairs.

Adi Talwar

A view of the Northern end of Gowanus Canal.

East New York’s Industrial Business Zone was set for a resurgence after the city rezoned the surrounding area in 2016—at least according to a list of commitments issued by the de Blasio Administration as they sought support for the neighborhood transformation. Six years later, the promised jobs boom never happened.

As part of the 2018 Jerome Avenue rezoning in The Bronx, city officials pledged $1.5 million to help local mechanics move to new locations elsewhere in the city. That money never materialized, at least in the first three years of the zoning changes as dozens of auto businesses left the neighborhood.

Private developers, meanwhile, routinely ignore the so-called “community benefits agreements” they sign as they seek to shore up rezoning support. As City Limits has reported over the past year, those promises made are rarely promises kept.

Now, nearly a year after the neighborhood-level upzoning of Gowanus, New York City is trying a new approach: actually making sure agencies and developers follow through on their commitments. 

A dedicated task force and newly selected facilitator will be empowered to hold the city and private developers accountable to more than 50 “points of agreement” drafted to secure final support for the Gowanus transformation plan. It’s a model that the local councilmember wants to see become standard for all neighborhood rezonings.

“Very often the agreements fall apart,” said Councilmember Shahana Hanif. “I hope this sets a precedent for future projects.”

This is the latest attempt on the part of lawmakers to strengthen oversight and accountability around rezoning promises. In 2016, the City Council passed Local Law 175, which required the city to create a publicly accessible “rezoning commitments tracker” and publish annual reports detailing progress. At the time, community groups worried the law didn’t go far enough to ensure compliance, arguing it should also include “community monitoring committees” to provide additional oversight. 

Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer, who oversees economic development, said the task force is a great achievement for Gowanus, but stopped short of recommending the same accountability mechanism for future neighborhood rezonings. 

“We try not to have a cookie-cutter approach,” she said in an interview with City Limits. “What’s important is that there’s mutual accountability here: the public viewing what the commitments are and what we all have to hold ourselves accountable for.”

The 56 points of agreements in the Gowanus deal include promises to renovate all 1,662 apartments in the Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens Houses and introduce free or low-cost WiFi at the two NYCHA complexes; build 950 units of income-restricted housing and a waterfront park on a city-owned lot at the corner of Smith and 5th Streets; upgrade local sewers and complete clean-ups of highly polluted sites along the toxic Gowanus Canal. 

Ben Margolis, a principal at the firm James Lima Planning + Development, will serve as points of agreement facilitator after he was selected by the Gowanus Rezoning Oversight Task Force, a network of local organizations, NYCHA tenant leaders and two first-term city councilmembers representing the neighborhood, Hanif and Lincoln Restler.

Margolis—a former vice president at the New York City Economic Development Corporation and head of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation—previously worked on the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, which helped shape the rezoning plan, and will hold the new role for at least two years. He will be paid through a $145,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, Hanif said.

Margolis said he will work with the task force to keep tabs on every commitment, convene city agencies and developers, and hold leaders’ feet to the fire at regular meetings. Those meetings will do more to further accountability than the current points of agreement model, he argues, in which the city updates progress toward their rezoning pledges in a web portal.

“Getting up in front of the public on a regular basis is pretty motivating,” Margolis said. “When you just have to tick off a tracker on a website that nobody looks at, that’s pretty different than stepping up to an audience of people.”

He said he envisions the task force organized into various committees based on subsections in the Points of Agreement documents—like affordable housing and sustainability—with each featuring a representative from a relevant city agency, a developer, a NYCHA resident and another local resident or worker. The task force will meet at least quarterly for public meetings, according to the Points of Agreement, but Margolis said its success will depend on building trust and bridging divides in a neighborhood where many residents strongly opposed the transformation plan. 

“A lot of people carry rezoning battle scars and have some preconceived notions of working with each other,” Margolis said. “The real work is going to happen between those meetings.”

The City Council voted to approve the plan to upzone an 82-block swath of Gowanus in November 2021, following years of discussions and stalled proposals. Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed the rezoning in his old Council district, with the city estimating that 8,500 new apartments will be added to the low-rise neighborhood by 2035. About 3,000 of those units will have rents capped for people earning less than the area median income—a sizable number, supporters say, that will allow more low- and middle-income tenants to move into a predominantly white neighborhood of relative affluence. 

A group of opponents known as Voice of Gowanus have held out against the rezoning, however. They have sued to block the land use changes, citing environmental concerns in and around the canal long used as an industrial waterway and dumping ground.

Still, many of those concerns will be addressed if the 56 Points of Agreements are actually fulfilled, said Hanif, who represents most of the rezoned area in the City Council. She won the 2021 election to succeed Brad Lander, now the comptroller, who championed the rezoning in the Council.

“This is a historic undertaking and community-led process in which a rezoning of this size was approved and now to ensure there is accountability,” Hanif said. “We have a commitment to create a Gowanus that is sustainable for the community that is there now and the residents who we will be welcoming, and to make sure this is a Gowanus with an environmentally just future.”

She said Margolis, the facilitator, will serve as a liaison between the community and city agencies and actually make good on the promises made to secure support for the rezoning. 

Restler, who represents a piece of the rezoned area, said he has seen firsthand how plans for better parks, new schools or more income-restricted housing have tapered off in the years after rezonings in his district, including Downtown Brooklyn and the Greenpoint waterfront.

“My community is still waiting on the core promises of those rezonings to be filled that we were told were coming when they were passed and are still stuck in bureaucratic limbo,” he said. “In a world where the rest of us want to see these things move forward, having a dedicated facilitator who can herd cats, keep us all on task and drive the points of agreement forward toward completion is going to be important.”

Both Hanif and Restler said they hoped the task force would prioritize the repairs and investments at NYCHA campuses located near the rezoning area. The city committed about $200 million to fund those improvements, and also pledged to reopen two community centers at the Gowanus and Wyckoff Gardens Houses.

Gowanus Houses Tenants Association President Andreas Tyre said he welcomes the task force model and the promised NYCHA investments, but added that the city first has to earn the confidence of public housing residents burned by mismanagement, dangerous conditions and decades of disinvestment.

“A lot of NYCHA residents don’t have trust when it comes to city officials,” Tyre said. “They need to put in the effort to repair that trust that has been broken.” 

He said the task force and city agencies have to ensure accessibility at meetings and specifically share information with residents, especially older adults, who do not get their information from the internet. 

Tyre said the pledge to invest in the two NYCHA campuses was a promising start, but he also wants to see that the city makes good on its other affordable housing commitments.

“You get in here and want to work your way to the next bracket of housing,” he said. “But New York City is just not affordable and people cannot move out of public housing.”

The task force information will be stored on the website of Brooklyn Community Board 6, which represents most of the rezoned area and played a role in selecting the facilitator. The board’s district manager, Mike Racioppo, said members are also determined to see the NYCHA investments completed.

“When we demanded funds for NYCHA capital improvements, it wasn’t to exist as a line item in a budget,” Racioppo said. “We wanted, and want,  those improvements to be real and improve the homes of thousands of Gowanus neighbors. We’re confident the facilitator will be instrumental in making that reality and all the conditions in the points of agreement a reality.”

This story has been updated to include information from Brooklyn Community Board 6.