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: