Showdown at the Gowanus Canal

Issue 259

Who should determine the fate of New York neighborhoods? In Gowanus, a struggle between community groups, private and non-profit developers, and the city is a window into a larger debate.

Jordan G. Teicher Oct 28, 2020

On September 22, residents of Sunset Park were celebrating the news that Industry City developers had withdrawn their rezoning application with the city.

Grassroots community groups—including UPROSE and Protect Sunset Park— had fought for years to block the rezoning plan for Industry City on the grounds that it would accelerate gentrification and leave the community vulnerable to climate change. As activists saw it, the plan’s defeat was not just a victory for Sunset Park, but for communities across the city looking to determine the future of their own neighborhoods.

“This is sending a message to elected officials and developers that development can no longer look like this,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director at UPROSE, told POLITICO.

Now, another land use struggle in Brooklyn will test that theory. Exactly a week after the Industry City decision, the city announced that it would restart the paused Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in Gowanus by January.

If approved, the plan would bring as many as 20,000 new residents to the neighborhood and allow for the construction of 8,000 new homes in Gowanus, including 3,000 below-market-rate units. (The largest of the proposed affordable housing developments, the Gowanus Green complex, sits in a flood zone on the site of a former gas plant where carcinogenic coal tar has seeped 153 feet into the ground.)

The Gowanus rezoning is the largest proposed under the de Blasio administration and likely one of the last to reach the public review process before the mayor’s term ends next year. It is also the latest to incorporate the mandatory inclusionary housing rule, which since 2016 has required developers building in an upzoned area to include a percentage of affordable housing units.

While the Sunset Park and Gowanus rezonings both give developers permission to build in some of the areas along the Brooklyn waterfront most vulnerable to climate change, there are essential differences between the two plans. Industry City’s developer-led rezoning was situated in a neighborhood where minority groups make up the majority of the population. Gownaus’ city-led rezoning is in a majority white neighborhood.

Yet activists say fights against both plans are part of a larger movement looking beyond the real estate industry as the primary driver of community improvement in New York. The Gowanus rezoning struggle, they say, presents an opportunity to highlight the weaknesses of the prevailing planning ideology and to build support for systemic change.

“I think that the struggle over Gowanus could be pivotal to this public discussion about the future of the waterfront and the future of the city,” says Tom Angotti, Professor Emeritus of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

•  •  •

Activists in Gowanus face an uphill political battle.

While politicians at the federal, state, and city level opposed the Industry City rezoning, Gowanus City Council Members Brad Lander and Stephen Levin support the Gowanus rezoning on the condition that the city amends it to provide badly-needed funding for public housing complexes in the neighborhood.

The Fifth Avenue Committee, the nonprofit co-developer of Gowanus Green, has also called on the city to incorporate funding for Gowanus’ public housing. In its role as the lead organizer of the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ), which includes environmental justice groups and NYCHA residents, the Committee has also demanded that the city’s plan create an Environmental Justice Special District and ensure that new development won’t contribute to sewer overflow into the Gowanus Canal. (The city’s filtration facility and cistern to sanitize raw sewage that flows into the canal won’t be completed until 2032.)

Those demands so far remain unmet, but in September Michelle de la Uz, Fifth Avenue Committee’s executive director, joined Lander—who is the Committee’s former director —in urging the city to begin the ULURP process anyway. “I think we’ve gotten as much as we can at this point, and then hopefully we can get to the finish line before the end of ULURP.”

If the city’s plan ultimately doesn’t meet GNCJ’s core demands, she says, the Fifth Avenue Committee and its coalition partners will oppose it—and she insists Lander and Levin would join them. Others aren’t so sure, including Michael Higgins, a former Fifth Avenue Committee employee. He believes that Lander’s eagerness to restart the ULURP process before the end of his term means he’s unlikely to walk away from the city’s plan. “At the end of the day, he is very committed to this process. He spent the last six, seven years talking about the rezoning,” Higgins says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that Brad won’t do the right thing in this case. It’s possible—maybe unlikely, but possible.”

•  •  •

Some housing advocates and Gowanus community groups believe the ULURP process could still deliver a positive outcome for the neighborhood. Voice of Gowanus, a coalition of half a dozen neighborhood groups, is not one of them.

The group has long opposed the city’s plan, on the basis that neither environmental remediation nor affordable housing for Gowanus should be tied to real estate interests. They’re also skeptical that other neighborhood activists can extract meaningful concessions from the city through ULURP—especially given that the process, during the pandemic, will be conducted virtually.

“There are many demands that they make that are good, but they shouldn’t be reliant on the rezoning to get them,” says Margaret Maugenest, a member of Voice of Gowanus.

That idea is growing in popularity across the city. Progressive candidates for city office are refusing to accept real estate campaign contributions and running on platforms that present socialization of private land and housing and direct public investment in new social housing as alternatives to the city’s market-driven approach to affordable housing construction. Brandon West, a candidate for Lander’s City Council seat, has proposed a citywide, comprehensive framework that could bring decisions about neighborhood planning under community control. “This idea that we can only build housing by giving developers a lot of what they want before we really think holistically about the community’s needs is, I think, false,” West says.

A new planning vision, Gowanus activists say, is possible. To win it, they’re turning their attention to the upcoming city elections and expanding their outreach outside Gowanus’ borders. “We’re looking to build a coalition of activists from around the city,” says Jack Riccobono, a Voice of Gowanus member. “We’ve been in touch with groups in Inwood, Sunset Park, Flushing, and Long Island City—and with the representatives we believe will be the future leaders of the city.”

This summer, Voice of Gowanus called on the city to pause the ULURP process until public meetings could be held in person and the city could conduct a racial impact study on the rezoning. Stalling the plan at this rate, however, is unlikely. But even if the rezoning process continues as planned, Riccobono says he and other activists are prepared to keep fighting to change hearts and minds in the neighborhood and recruit them for the longer, larger struggle ahead.

“This is not just one neighborhood’s issue. This is a citywide problem,” Riccobono says. “I’m hopeful that we can fix this broken system.”

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