Letter from Elected Officials
In 1906, the dissolved oxygen level in the fetid Gowanus Canal — both transportation route and sewer for hundreds of industrial businesses with thousands of jobs — reached zero. A century later, the smell remained, but few businesses did. The environment and economy of Gowanus have both improved a bit in the past few years, but there is still a long way to go.
Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) continue to pour raw sewage into the canal. Nearby streets, homes, and businesses flood — not only during Hurricane Sandy, but simply when it rains. Recent development under the area’s current zoning nearby consists of self-storage facilities, big-box stores, budget hotels, and a parole office — hardly a recipe for sustainable economic development, good jobs, or a livable community.
Fortunately, there are reasons to be hopeful for the future of Gowanus. Thanks to the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) Superfund efforts (and the tireless advocacy of local groups), the Canal will be dredged in the coming years. Significant water quality improvements are within reach. New resources are available to improve resiliency in the face of climate change.
New light manufacturing, design, and creative businesses are springing up, and some strong older ones remain. A vibrant arts, cultural, and nonprofit community has developed. A cluster of businesses committed to recycling, re-use, and sustainability has emerged. New recreational activities and restaurants are attracting customers. Thanks to a mix of housing types – especially the presence of NYCHA’s Gowanus Houses, Warren Street Houses, and Wyckoff Gardens, as well as some rent-stabilized housing – the neighborhood remains more diverse than most of the surrounding ones.
Meanwhile, real estate development pressure presents both threats and opportunities. While most of the area around the Canal is zoned for industrial uses, some new housing development has already been permitted on a scattershot, site-by-site basis, through a spot-rezoning and variances that do little to address the community’s broader goals or concerns. Residents and businesses understandably fear that unbridled development will displace the things they love the most about the area.
The time is therefore right for a comprehensive plan — to build on the opportunities and address the very real challenges.
Unfortunately, anyone who has watched development nearby has good reason to be skeptical. On Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue (just steps away), a Bloomberg Administration rezoning allowed new housing but got almost everything wrong. Cement walls and parking garages occupy ground floors where active uses should animate a walkable street. Existing affordable units were demolished, and none of the new housing is affordable. Few new infrastructure investments were made for a growing population.
In Greenpoint/Williamsburg, another area where mixed-use area development was promised, too much industry was lost, whole blocks flipped to residential—very little of which is affordable — and soaring property values displaced long-term residents and businesses. There, “mixed-use” has mostly meant “how long does it take for housing to replace manufacturing?” and has led to a loss of blue-collar jobs (even as the manufacturing economy has begun to revive nearby in the Brooklyn Navy Yard). And the City’s many promises of infrastructure investments — in parks, transit, and a resilient waterfront — have been largely unfulfilled.
The Bloomberg Administration approached these as exercises in rezoning rather than planning. The goals of private developers were placed first, rather than the needs of infrastructure, community, and public benefit. The City gave developers large density boosts and property tax breaks worth many millions. These public actions generated massive increases in private land values and wealth — but far too little public value was generated, and far too little was shared.
The City did not commit to an upfront plan for necessary infrastructure investments. Affordability and mixed-use goals were left as “voluntary” options that relied on the whims of private developers. The Administration sought to appease the community with last-minute, after-the-fact “memoranda of agreement” that had no force of law. Little attention was paid to implementation or compliance.
Getting Gowanus right demands a different way of doing things.
That’s why “Bridging Gowanus” was convened in the summer of 2013 – to make sure that the communities around the Canal could take the lead in identifying the values that will shape future actions. Its goal: “To develop a comprehensive framework for the infrastructure and land use regulations needed for a safe, vibrant, and sustainable Gowanus, through a broad-based, inclusive, transparent and robust process.”
Over the past year, several hundred people – long-time and newer residents, environmental leaders, manufacturers and business owners, property owners and developers, artists, tenant leaders and affordable housing advocates – have taken part in many hours of public meetings through Bridging Gowanus. There were three large community meetings (with 150-200 people each), along with many workshops, working group meetings, and small group interviews. Small group discussions to encourage face-to-face conversations were facilitated (but always with report-backs to the full group). And the meeting materials and recordings available to all online.
The conversations were sometimes contentious, with strong and diverse opinions expressed (exactly as one would want and expect in our community). But there was substantial agreement on the core values that should shape future actions in Gowanus:
+ Upfront investments in sustainable infrastructure – for environmental cleanup of the water and land, to reduce flooding and to improve resiliency without creating adverse hydrological impacts, build new schools to address overcrowding, create and connect open space, and improve transit options. The future of Gowanus rests on these investments.
+ Strengthening manufacturing businesses – recognizing the importance of retaining space for heavier industrial uses, as well as the opportunity that exists in the innovation, technology, green-tech, and creative sectors – and making sure residents can benefit from the jobs. A strengthened “Gowanus Manufacturing Zone” is an essential element of this plan.
+ A genuine mixed-use community that preserves the character of Gowanus(including its vibrant arts scene), requires a genuine mix of uses (with light manufacturing, arts, artisan, and nonprofit spaces), and does not allow it to be overwhelmed by the relentless swarm of luxury condo and rental towers that have overtaken nearby Fourth Avenue.
+ Preserving and creating affordable housing where new residential development is allowed – through investments in preserving public housing, stronger protections against tenant harassment and displacement, and mandatory inclusionary zoning – so the benefits of a resurgent Gowanus can be truly shared across lines of race and class.
+ Making sure the rules are followed – for sustainability, affordability, infrastructure, mixed-use, and quality of life – and aren’t simply words on paper amidst the loud reality of development.
Achieving these goals requires a plan for responsible growth. This plan will allow for taller buildings in some (but only some) places – if and only if they genuinely advance the community’s goals for infrastructure, resiliency, sustainability, a genuine Gowanus mix of uses, good jobs, and affordability.
The Bridging Gowanus framework insists on new models for ensuring that public goals are placed first and truly met. It must start with a plan for infrastructure investments that includes real funding commitments and timetables. That’s why we were encouraged to see the proposal for a “Gowanus TIF (Tax Increment Financing)” that – when combined with Superfund, Sandy recovery, and City Capital commitments – will guarantee the necessary resources.
This plan calls for the Department of City Planning to adopt new zoning districts: that strengthen manufacturing (by eliminating uses that undermine industrial businesses), mandate and protect affordability, and require a real mix of uses. These goals cannot be left to the whims of developers. They must be written into the law.
Finally, just as this process has been rooted in community planning, the City must continue to include community stakeholders – including Community Board 6 and the Community Advisory Group for the EPA’s Superfund project – in the next stages of planning, implementation, and long-term oversight.
Not everyone agrees with every element of the Bridging Gowanus community planning framework, of course. We know there is dissent, as there has been throughout the process (and for many years). Not only do we recognize it; we value it. Strong community voices have been essential to improving the quality of life in the neighborhood. We understand the skepticism that developers will get what they want, with only lip service to the community’s goals.
Without a viable plan, however, the community has no chance to get the protections, regulations, and investments we need to meet our shared goals. The risks of inaction are clear: continued flooding and environmental degradation, spot rezonings and variances with no plan, and the ongoing proliferation of hotels, big-box stores, self-storage facilities, and nightclubs (all allowable under the zoning there today).
We believe that achieving a more sustainable, more equitable, and more livable neighborhood requires us to balance and shape growth.
More than that: the community we want – with an infrastructure that is attentive to the challenges of our times, animated by a vibrant mix of uses, and inclusive of Brooklyn’s diversity – is built on generating, preserving, and sharing the values of Gowanus.
The “Bridging Gowanus” framework outlines what it will take to get there. Thank you for working with us to be a part of it.
New York City Council Member Brad Lander
United States Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez
New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery
New York City Council Member Stephen Levin
New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca
New York State Assemblywoman-elect Jo Anne Simon