The Gowanus Rezoning: Why it’s problematic, and how we can fix our broken land use process

The City Council have a major impact on land use. Many working people are ignored; the rich and powerful still get to carve up and decide what kind of city New York will be. The 39th District is not immune to this problem. It has a diverse community who will be impacted by these planning decisions, and whose voices need to be heard.

One of the most important powers of a City Council member is their impact on land use issues in their district. Despite this, many working people across the city are not listened to; the rich and powerful still get to carve up and decide what kind of city New York will be.

The 39th District is not immune to this problem. There is a diverse community of people living here who will be impacted by these planning decisions, and it’s important we know what is going on. We must also not lose sight of how we can fix this larger problem — that working-class communities don’t have a say in what happens to their neighborhoods, their homes, and their livelihoods.

We are living through a housing crisis, which is turning into an eviction crisis during a pandemic. And yet, our City Councilmembers are not fighting hard enough for working people in Gowanus.

The NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) is hoping to make Gowanus so that it’s a home for the wealthy. In 2018, they released a framework for the future of Gowanus, including a proposed rezoning of 80 blocks of the neighborhood and the Fourth Avenue corridor.

Fourth Ave Corridor

DCP says they based this framework on a community process spearheaded by City Councilmember Brad Lander, which included some laudable goals, such as creating new, permanently affordable housing for those with low incomes, creating new job opportunities in the industrial sector, and creating a walkable neighborhood with access to the waterfront. Those things may sound good, but the plan only creates a fraction of the affordable housing we need, and much of it won’t truly be affordable. Moreover, climate change is shaping the landscape of our communities, and the plan fails to reckon with this.

The Gowanus Rezoning Plan includes:

  • More than 8,000 new units of housing, of which only 3,000 units would be “affordable”
  • Rezoning existing manufacturing-only zones to allow for retail and entertainment uses as well as mixed manufacturing/residential zones
  • Disposition of publicly owned land at the Gowanus Green site to development team Hudson Companies, Jonathan Rose Companies, the Bluestone Organization, and Fifth Avenue Committee for $1, in exchange for development of approximately 950 units of affordable housing in six buildings, with affordability levels to be determined
  • Creating more public access to the waterfront, including a new public park at Gowanus Green
  • A commitment to fund $4 million for a new community center at Gowanus Houses — a small fraction of the estimated $115.1 million capital deficit at Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Gardens, and Warren Street House, meaning that the city and state owe our neighbors in public housing $115.1 million just to make their homes livable

We deserve affordable housing and improvements to our neighborhood. BUT WE CAN DO BETTER.

HOUSING

Housing is a human right, and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), as used in the Gowanus Rezoning Plan, isn’t enough. The City says that on privately owned land, this rezoning will create 7,200 new units of housing (the other 800 are on public land). But only 2,000 of these units will be “affordable,” as determined by the MIH law and federal affordability standards that don’t reflect the needs on the ground in New York. It’s likely that the units could cost anywhere from $854 to$2,979 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. We must ask ourselves, can the working class afford this housing? (The answer is, quite simply, no. A minimum-wage-earning parent of two renting the least expensive 2-bedroom would still struggle to cover groceries, electricity, gas, medical bills, child care, and other basic needs for their family, and definitely wouldn’t be able to afford the apartment at the higher end. This is unacceptable.)

We need to reform MIH to ensure that it creates real affordable housing for New Yorkers with the most need. We need to work with the federal government to create quality publicly owned housing, and not just on public land.

The alternative to the Gowanus Rezoning is not to do nothing. We must build housing. But the argument that building luxury housing at these rates brings down housing prices for below-market-rate housing hasn’t worked. The Fourth Avenue corridor is already facing displacement as a result of the previous zoning and resulting influx of luxury housing.

RESILIENCY

The climate crisis will devastate New York City unless we build policies that fight against it. Much of the plan’s proposed development is in a flood zone. During Hurricane Sandy, 51 square miles of New York City flooded. In District 39, we saw floods and power outages for the low elevation parts of the district in this potential rezoning. We need assurances that our homes will be safe from flooding.

ECONOMY

As we recover from the impacts of COVID-19, we need to ensure that the people in District 39 have access to good-quality, safe jobs that allow them to provide for themselves and their families.

We know that manufacturing jobs provide good pay with low barriers to entry and are particularly important to communities of color. The City’s analysis says this plan will cause a loss of approximately 164,000 square feet of warehouse and other industrial space. On the Williamsburg waterfront in 2005, the zoning took away our manufacturing areas, and today, almost no manufacturing jobs remain. We cannot afford to make the same mistake again.

COMMUNITY INVESTMENTS

Our community needs more open green space, and crucially, our NYCHA buildings desperately need upgrades. We have been living next to a Superfund site for too long, and need to ensure the toxic environmental legacy of the canal is addressed.

But this rezoning plan proposes that remediation of sites adjacent to the canal be tied to redevelopment. And the new park and public housing improvements (beyond the $4 million for the community center) are tied to the plan’s approval. We shouldn’t line the pockets of big developers by letting them build luxury housing, just so that we can get the City to invest in our neighbors and our future.

It’s clear that our land use process is broken, and that the Gowanus Rezoning plan will not address our community’s needs. What can we do?

Plan Starting With Our Values

I stand with the New York City Democratic Socialists of America and their vision for future planning, outlined during the successful fight against the Industry City rezoning.

Our planning process must reflect our values and be focused on protecting the most vulnerable populations in our city, not helping big developers get rich. This includes:

  • Ending displacement, gentrification, and predatory real estate speculation
  • Undoing the racist legacies of planning by centering racial equity, housing justice, and environmental justice
  • Focusing on resiliency and ending the city’s reliance on fossil fuels
  • Demanding direct public investment in social housing
  • Removing the influence of developer interests in planning decisions and empowering and planning for the working class

Radical Charter Revision

When I’m in the City Council, I intend to push for a radical Charter Revision Commission to fix land use. (Stick with me here!) The City Council, with the leadership of the Speaker, can push for this process, in which a Commission makes suggestions for changes to the Charter, which is essentially the City’s Constitution. By revising the City Charter, we can empower communities and make sure that no decisions are made about us without us. The Commission’s recommendations are then voted on by the people. As we’ve seen, ballot initiatives win, and we can build a movement of support to ensure it.

Through this process, we can:

  • Require a Citywide Comprehensive Planning Framework

that balances citywide needs with neighborhood priorities. Communities need more power in decision-making. But already some wealthy, white neighborhoods use this power to block the resources working-class people need, like affordable housing and homeless shelters.

Because of this, the City rezones low-income communities of color and removes shelter residents from the Upper West Side. A comprehensive planning framework will outline growth targets and anti-displacement strategies, analyze neighborhood needs, and include necessary siting of public facilities, all while leaving the implementation strategy to a community process. This can mean community and worker-led planning that actually gets implemented, using inclusive, democratic processes that go beyond participatory budgeting to establish neighborhood priorities.

  • Reform community boards:

Term limits are a good start, but they don’t go far enough to ensure that the boards actually reflect the communities they are meant to represent. Having them be elected would address this and increase the accountability in their decision-making. They also need technical assistance, which is why we should look to local advocacy groups and a new Office of Community Planning for guidance and expertise. New York’s residents and workers are the best experts to guide how the City should plan with them, not for them.

  • Create an Office of Community Planning

that would provide technical assistance to communities. The Department of City Planning is supposed to do this, but frankly, we’ve seen them work against communities more often than they work with them. This Office must be independent and tasked with helping (reformed) community boards, CBOs, and other groups create as they implement their planning visions.

  • Require a Racial Impact Study and better analysis of displacement for all development projects. Before any new development proposal that has the potential to change the features and makeup of a neighborhood goes through the approval process, the developer/sponsor must study how the proposed changes would affect people already living in the neighborhood and how it would affect new people wishing to move there, with a specific eye toward racial equity.

These ideas aren’t new. If you want to read more about them, check out these reports from RPA, CUFFH, and the Pratt Center for Community Development. The experts and the folks on the ground know these strategies work. With organizing and collective action, we can work together to ensure our land use process works for the people, not against them.