Most of the conversation about rezonings tends to focus on new residential and commercial development. How tall will the buildings be? What uses will be allowed? How much of the housing will be affordable, and to whom? And those questions matter a lot, of course.

But that means we don’t usually spend enough time focusing on the infrastructure — schools, transit, sewers — needed to sustain growth. 

That’s part of why I voted no on the Flushing rezoning yesterday. Not only does it require just 5% affordable housing, but it also fails to study the environmental impacts, and it lacks the critical infrastructure commitments needed to address traffic and transit, open space, schools, and sewers.

We’re working hard to do things differently in Gowanus. Through years of community planning, we’ve consistently been clear that to be safe and inclusive, new development must come with real investments in local infrastructure. 

At last week’s Community Board 6 meeting, the Departments of City Planning (DCP) and Environmental Preservation (DEP) shared details about some of the new requirements and incentives embedded in the Gowanus rezoning plan. These new rules & tools will generate enhanced stormwater infrastructure to reduce sewage (CSOs) in the canal, transit accessibility improvements, and needed public school seats in Gowanus. 

Perhaps most important, DEP’s analysis shows that its new stormwater management rules will prevent additional CSOs in the canal following the rezoning. This analysis will be reviewed by the EPA as part of their Superfund oversight.  

Here are the toplines of the newly announced infrastructure updates: 

No New CSOs with New Development

  • DEP’s new “2021 Unified Stormwater Rule” (authorized by Local Law 91, which I co-sponsored in the City Council in August) is projected to reduce overall CSOs in the Gowanus Canal by approximately 5 million gallons per year. New buildings will be subject to stringent new rules for retaining stormwater and wastewater on-site during heavy rains. 
  • The new stormwater management standards will apply to construction citywide, but the impact on the Gowanus Canal would be intensified by new development resulting from the rezoning. DEP’s chart below gives four scenarios that show the relationship between the rezoning and the new rule (MGY=Million Gallons per Year): 

  • The new Unified Stormwater Rule: 
    • Applies to a broader set of sites. The current rule applies only to sites 1 acre and larger that are in separated storm sewer (MS4) areas. The new rule applies in both separated and combined storm sewer areas to any project that disturbs at least 20,000 square feet of soil or creates 5,000 square feet of impervious area, with a more limited set of additional requirements for all new construction on any site. 
    • Introduces water retention requirements. The current rule has no requirements for buildings to retain (absorb on-site without release) stormwater. The new rule adds retention volume requirements, based on a higher rainfall estimate, with a new, more flexible set of design guidelines for achieving them.
    • Strengthens water detention requirements. For water that cannot be infiltrated on site, the new rule reduces the allowable release rate into the sewage system, in part by reducing the minimum orifice size (from 2” to 1”) through which water can be released.  Detaining water on-site for longer helps prevent wastewater treatment plants from reaching capacity during high-volume rainstorms, and reduces the likelihood of a CSO event. New developments must demonstrate compliance with all of these new guidelines to receive a building permit. 
  • In addition to CSO’s, the new rules are expected to reduce street flooding due to additional stormwater controls. 
  • This rule is in addition to new CSO retention tanks that the EPA is requiring the DEP to build as part of the Superfund project, which will significantly reduce CSOs in the Gowanus Canal. I strongly support these tanks, and recently wrote to DEP to help make sure they are built on the schedule mandated by the EPA.  

New Schools 

  • The rezoning will include a new zoning tool for the Gowanus Special District to support the creation of new neighborhood public schools in mixed-use buildings. Sites over 30,000 square feet will be eligible for a floor area exemption of school space up to 60,000 square feet.
  • As shown below, the tool would allow bulk and height modifications as-of-right in the Canal district, with a maximum height increase of 40 feet. Schools will be located on the bottom floors of any building, with playground space on the roof when necessary. 
  • Private developers will provide the space, and the School Construction Authority will build it out, reducing SCA acquisition and construction costs. SCA monitors school seat need citywide, and will continue to do so as new development comes online in Gowanus. SCA and the community will receive notice of new developments early in the permitting process. Since exempted school space can only be used for a public school, SCA will be well situated to negotiate a good price for the space. 
  • This new “schools tool” in the zoning is in addition to the new public school that will be built on the Gowanus Green site, as part of the 100% affordable housing development there, along with a waterfront park.

Transit Bonus

  • Development sites along Fourth Avenue will be eligible (through an authorization process, which goes to the community board) to increase the buildable density on their site up to 20%, and height up to 3 additional stories, in exchange for building commensurate subway improvements, as determined by the MTA. 
  • Eligible sites may contribute to improvements on- or off-site. This allows the MTA to make the best use of private investment generated through land use action, in coordination with the City Planning and the community.
  • We are working to utilize this bonus to create a new elevator and subway stairwell at the Union Street N/R station as part of new development there. 

These tools do not take the place of City investments to address impacts identified through the Environmental Impact Statement, which will be released in January. Rather, these regulations and zoning tools help ensure that private development contributes to public good.

And these aren’t the only infrastructure improvements that are part of the rezoning, which also requires all waterfront developers to build a resilient esplanade (designed to be resilient for high-tide in the year 2100), and to include rooftop solar, wind, or green roof. We’ve already made significant improvements to St. Mary’s Playground and Ennis Playground, and installed high-level storm sewers throughout the neighborhood to address CSOs and flooding. And of course, all of that is in addition to the Superfund dredging and new CSO tanks, the infrastructure investment around which the future of Gowanus centers.   

This week, the Department of City Planning announced that they will “certify” the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning on January 19, 2021. Certification kicks off the public review process, which will take 7 to 9 months, and includes a discussion and a vote by Community Board 6, the Brooklyn Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and ultimately the City Council. Public testimony will be taken at each of those steps. We will be in touch about the schedule for public meetings and any additional information released by DCP ahead of certification. 

As always, comments are being collected by Community Board 6, an FAQ is available on my website, and you can email us your thoughts and questions to lander@council.nyc.gov.

I can’t promise you that we will get everything right. But I can promise you that we are working really hard to get this planning process right — and that means keeping a close eye on the infrastructure needed for a vibrant, inclusive, sustainable neighborhood, where there’s room for all of us. Our future depends on it.