Contentious rezoning along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal passes the NYC City Council

Gowanus Green LIght

Contentious rezoning along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal passes the NYC City Council

New York City officials are celebrating the passage of a sweeping zoning change along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, while opponents have vowed to fight on in court. (bobistraveling/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

After being given the go-ahead by the New York City Council’s Land Use Committee earlier this month, the full council has near-unanimously passed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vast and vexed Gowanus Neighborhood Plan. The plan will upzone an 82-block swath of the (once) largely industrial Brooklyn neighborhood to allow for 8,500 new apartments by 2035. It is the first zoning change for Gowanus in six decades.

Three-thousand of those 8,500 units will be earmarked as permanently affordable, and the rezoning also calls for $200 million in much-needed capital improvements for Wykoff Gardens and the Gowanus Houses, two major public housing complexes in the neighborhood. Residential towers up to 30-stories tall will be permitted along the notoriously fetid canal that bisects the flood-prone neighborhood while high-rises no taller than 17 stories will be allowed along 4th Avenue, which serves as the border between Gowanus and Park Slope.

“This is the biggest rezoning this administration has done over our eight years,” said de Blasio in a press conference held hours before the council vote. “This is exactly the kind of thing we came here to do.”

In addition to housing and NYCHA upgrades, the deal will bring new sewer (a very vital element), school, and transit infrastructure, including $22 million in pedestrian safety improvements, to the ”direct rezoning area.” The $250 million neighborhood investment also entails nearly 6 acres of new parkland and open space, including a publicly accessible waterfront esplanade, as well as 150 affordable artist studios, light manufacturing, and dedicated community-use spaces. A handful of historic buildings in the neighborhood will also be restored.

Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, described the Gowanus rezoning as being “different.”

”It‘s different because we put inclusion, equity, the environment, NYCHA tenants, accountability, and justice at the center of this rezoning,” she said in a statement. “It‘s different because GNCJ‘s dynamic multiracial coalition of NYCHA tenants, affordable housing, environmental, industrial and arts advocates and civic and religious leaders came together with our incredible Councilmembers Brad Lander and Steve Levin in partnership. This is a rezoning the administration can be proud of.”

“Opening up a centrally-located, well-resourced part of Brooklyn to more New Yorkers is a critical step towards a fairer city,” added Vicki Been, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development. “I look forward to seeing the growth and public investments advance to realize a more resilient and equitable Gowanus.”

Term-limited council member Carlos Menchaca, who represents District 38 which includes Gowanus-neighboring neighboring Red Hook and Sunset Park, was the lone dissenter in the 47–1 vote. As pointed out by the New York Daily News, Menchaca has a track record of opposing rezoning efforts.

The plan’s passage, heralded by a wide swath of city officials including Mayor-elect Eric Adams but met with threats of further legal challenges by grassroots neighborhood groups who have long rallied against dense development along the shores of the Superfund-listed Gowanus Canal, sets the stage for the also-contentious Soho/Noho Neighborhood Plan. That rezoning is scheduled for a first council vote in early December.

Ahead of the vote, council member and city comptroller-elect Brad Lander wrote to his constituents within District 39, which covers most of the neighborhood with the exception of the northernmost area around the canal, which falls under the Steve Levin-represented District 33. In his letter, Lander explained the reasoning behind his “yes” vote and detailed the positive ways in which it will help to reshape the already changing neighborhood:

“I know that a lot of people are hesitant about new development. It can be hard to watch the neighborhood we love change, especially when it feels like someone else is profiting while the rest of us just have to live with change, construction, and uncertainty.

But this neighborhood is already changing, in ways that do not necessarily bring the resources we need for a thriving neighborhood. The bars, hotels, shelters, and storage buildings that proliferated in Gowanus in recent years do not help our city solve our housing crisis and they certainly don’t bring investments in parks, schools, transit accessibility or sewer infrastructure.

I’m grateful to this community for all the ways you have debated and organized around this plan, your advocacy and participation made it far better.”

Lander added that he’ll “be an engaged neighbor still, living just 2 blocks from the rezoning area.”

The impacted area flanks the neighborhood’s “black mayonnaise”-lined canal known for its unholy stench, unnatural color, and the unfortunate marine mammals that occasionally venture into its murky waters. Specifically, the rezoning area is bounded by Bond Street on the western side of the canal, 4th Avenue to the east, Baltic Street to the north, and Huntington, 3rd, 7th, and 15th streets to the south.

Among the neighborhood groups opposed to the rezoning is Voice of Gowanus. Associated with Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (F.R.O.G.G.), the self-described “coalition of community organizations and individual citizens” has voiced concern that a flurry of development along the canal will only worsen pollution within Gowanus, which is slowly but steadily on the rebound (with some notable setbacks) following decades of unchecked environmental degradation. Per the Daily News, the group alleges that the rezoning was not subject to proper environmental impact reviews, a claim that Lander and other backers of rezoning have said are “overblown.” As detailed by the Mayor’s office, the rezoning requires that developers “clean up long-polluted brownfield sites, elevate their buildings to protect against long-term daily tidal flooding, and meet new stormwater management requirements that will reduce annual combined sewer overflow (CSO) volumes.”

“As Brad Lander celebrates a massive violation of state and federal law today—one that endangers the safety of our community and the environment, and bends to the interests of big real estate—we note that a certain lady has not yet sung when it comes to the Gowanus rezoning,” said Voice of Gowanus organizer Martin Bisi in a statement shared by the Daily News and other outlets. “See you in court.”

In addition to green-lighting the Gowanus rezoning, council members also approved rezoning for the New York City Blood Center, which would allow the nonprofit, one of the largest independent blood collection and distribution organizations in the country, to build a 230-foot-tall, $750 million office and life sciences research tower on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was passed with a 43­–5 vote, with local council member Ben Kallos notably voting against it. Similar to the Gowanus rezoning, the Blood Center rezoning has faced both enthusiasm and fierce local opposition—mostly the latter in this particular instance, and the council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus has recently hit back against opponents.