Skip to main content

District 39

Brad Lander

Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, Kensington

April 20, 2021

Yesterday, the Department of City Planning certified the application for the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning, launching what will be a 6-8 month public review process. The application and the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) are now public, and Community Board 6 will begin to hold public meetings in the coming weeks, with opportunities for both virtual and in-person participation. 

As we start to review the application and the EIS, I want to speak to you — and listen to you — about it as openly as I can. Over the past few years, debates about planning and real estate development have been some of the most contentious in New York City. 

There is a lot of distrust of rezonings, and with good reason. It feels like communities aren’t given a real voice, like developers get whatever they want, like the affordable housing isn’t really affordable, like City officials don’t care about the neighborhoods we live in. I have felt the same way many times, and opposed many projects as a result. So I understand — and even share — the skepticism.

But we also know that we need to find smart, sustainable ways to preserve the neighborhoods we love while doing more to make them inclusive and affordable, and help to secure a vibrant future for our city. 

I believe that the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning — if we get it right, and it’s not there yet — has the potential to do that. 

Here are the questions I think we should be asking:

1. Is it grounded in democratic community planning, or was it foisted on the community by a developer or by City Hall?

We’ve been planning for the future of the Gowanus Canal together for nearly a decade, with thousands of people taking part in scores of meetings, large and small (more on the process here). First, without the City or developers even at the table, we set goals through a year-long community planning process called “Bridging Gowanus” in 2013. Building on that work, the Department of City Planning convened small working groups — of tenants, homeowners, public housing residents, small business people, artists, environmentalists, and more — to look at details. After the plan was fleshed out City Planning came back to the community for multiple charrettes, and three more public sessions last fall. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect, and we’ll be fighting to improve it through the ULURP process. But the community has set benchmarks and priorities against which to judge this plan, many of which have already shaped it in meaningful ways. 

2. Does it share the benefits of our neighborhood better, create a more integrated city, and offer genuinely affordable housing to people who need it?

As I wrote with Barika Williams and Michelle de la Uz, I believe that the Gowanus rezoning has the potential to advance “fair housing” goals and promote racial equity by creating many new affordable homes in a neighborhood that has very few, without displacement. I am a co-sponsor of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ legislation to require a “racial impact study” (like an EIS, but with racial equity in mind) of every large rezoning application. While this bill has not yet passed the Council, I’ve committed to making sure that an independent analysis, modeled on the bill requirements, is conducted and released in time to inform public review. And as I’ve made clear from the very start, in addition to the 3,000 units of new affordable housing included in the proposal, the plan must be amended to include significant repairs and improvements to NYCHA’s Wyckoff Gardens and Gowanus Houses, the vast majority of the existing affordable homes in our community, many of which are badly deteriorating. If it doesn’t, I won’t support it.

3. Does it preserve the things we love about our community, and make those stronger?

There’s no getting around this: the rezoning proposal does not match the low-rise context of the surrounding brownstone neighborhoods. It would allow 18-22 story buildings (up to 30 in a couple places), around the canal. I understand the wish for a lower-rise proposal, even if that would create much less housing. The Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning does, however, include plans to keep Gowanus creative and mixed-use, by preserving and creating new space for light manufacturing and artists. It preserves some wonderful historic buildings. And it comes with innovative new zoning tools to invest in new schools, transit improvement, and resilient open space. The EIS will help us evaluate whether what’s proposed will be enough to sustain projected growth. If it’s not, we’ll demand more. The goal has to be a vibrant, livable neighborhood for those who have lived here a long time — and for our new neighbors. 

4. Does it create a more sustainable and resilient community mindful of our climate future?

The Gowanus Canal is a Superfund site that has been polluted for over a century, that flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and that is finally being cleaned up. Any new development must support the cleanup — it cannot add new CSO pollution into the canal — and be built to the highest standards for sustainability and resilience. The rezoning mandates the highest environmental standards ever imposed in New York City for reducing stormwater/CSO events, elevating future buildings, creating a resilient esplanade (planned with high tide in the year 2100 in mind), requiring sustainable buildings and technology (every building will have rooftop solar/wind/green roof), and generating new open space so that our community can live, work, and recreate safely and healthily around the remediated canal in the decades to come. The EIS will help us evaluate whether those provisions achieve the goals. And we expect to see details very soon on the environmental engineering plan for the cleanup at the Public Place site (aka Gowanus Green), proposed for 950 units of 100% affordable housing. One bit of important good news here: the EPA, which is overseeing the Superfund cleanup, has agreed to review the plans and tell us what they think. 

5. Are private developers just getting over on us, or is it really maximizing public value?

It’s no secret that real estate is big business, and that developers are in it to make money, not because they love our neighborhoods. So the question is: Do the rules that we are writing for Gowanus maximize public benefit? This proposal would grant owners the ability to build taller residential buildings than the surrounding brownstone neighborhoods. In exchange it would require 25% low-income housing (under MIH Option 1), a resilient, continuous waterfront esplanade, aggressive stormwater retention, and rooftop solar/wind/green roof. Meaningful incentives are included for commercial space that keeps Gowanus creative, for school seats, and for transit improvements. 

Is the trade-off worth it? That’s the conversation we need to have, informed by the data (so I’m glad the EIS is finally available to review), guided by our values, and through rigorous, respectful democratic debate. 

In the coming weeks and months, there will be public hearings held by Community Board 6, the Brooklyn Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council. And you can always send your thoughts to me at lander@council.nyc.gov

Whatever your opinion is, I am truly eager to hear it. 

We’ve got many months to go in considering this proposal. I look forward to doing it in democatic dialogue with you.

Brad