Public Comments on the Bridging Gowanus Community Planning Framework

The Bridging Gowanus community planning framework was an extensive process that, through small group interviews, large public meetings, working groups, and web-based resources, engaged more than 300 interested stakeholders from the Gowanus area. The process was launched in the fall of 2013.

The draft community planning framework was released in November 2014. Public conversations about the draft framework were held at a public meeting organized by the Bridging Gowanus conveners on November 24, 2014; at a Community Board 6 meeting in January 2015; and at a meeting of the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group (established as part of the EPA’s Superfund project) in February 2015.  Written comments were accepted through August 31, 2015.

In total, 52 people with 44 affiliations including residents, businesses, and civic associations in the area commented on the draft Bridging Gowanus community planning framework.

We have compiled all public comments as follows:

    • Video from the November 24, 2014 public comment meeting is viewable here (and in Spanish, here).

    • A transcription of comments made at the November 24, 2014 public comment meeting is available here.

    • All written feedback we received is available here. Statements by Community Board 6 and the Gowanus Canal CAG are presented first (as they are official/public entities). After that, the comments are presented in alphabetical order.

At the request of several commenters, we have made available here the raw information from the worksheets from the Public Meeting #3 in June, 2014.

All public comments that were submitted have been linked to above. We provide a brief summary of the major themes below.

Planning Process

Many comments speak to the Bridging Gowanus process and the way that any future, City-led engagement should take place.

On the positive side, some commenters praised the unique quality of the process, its ambition, and its usefulness in creating a space for community members to grapple with critical issues. These comments praised the Bridging Gowanus organizers “for working conscientiously to develop a collective framework to envision the future of the Gowanus neighborhood.” It was characterized as a “bottom-up, community-driven, facilitated conversation about the future of our Gowanus neighborhood,”  whose goal was “to illuminate the full range of thoughts, ideas, suggestions and opinions to help light the way forward,” and one that “showed where there was, and is, dissent within the community on many issues ranging from the size and scale of housing that would be considered to be appropriate for Gowanus, to the question of whether any housing should be considered at all. By capturing and reflecting these positions and honestly reporting them as you have Bridging Gowanus is probably the only initiative to have ever catalogued and reported the full spectrum of visions for the Gowanus.”

On the negative side, some commenters were sharply critical of the entire process: “I find the completely faux planning process called Bridging Gowanus to be neither a community planning process or a legitimate endeavor to create a community planning process … I do not believe Bridging Gowanus has truly listened to this community.” These comments viewed the process as an effort on behalf of real estate developers: “It is abundantly clear that the whole Milking—oops, Bridging Gowanus process was engineered to eventually allow the possibility for lucrative developer opportunities–and we will be ‘on the plate’ very soon.” “Bridging Gowanus has done the best for the developers.” Several of these commenters criticized the lack of a public vote on the final report.

Some of the process comments were particularly concerned with the exercise that took place at Public Meeting #3 in June 2014. These comments critiqued the design of the exercise as overly restrictive and leading, and the presentation of the results as overstating residents’ openness to residential development at heights of taller than 10 stories. We provide some reflection on this exercise and its results here [see end]. 

Another key observation about the process was that low- and moderate-income residents of the area, the majority of who are Latino and African-American, were underrepresented in the process.  Although two of the three public meetings were held in the community center of the Wyckoff Gardens NYCHA development (and the public comment meeting was in the public school which serves students from, and is located near to the Gowanus Houses NYCHA development), and substantial outreach was done to NYCHA residents, there was nonetheless insufficient participation by public housing residents.  This is an important observation – considering that the more than 4,500 residents of Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Gardens and 572 Warren Street, represent a full third of the neighborhood’s total population.  Going forward, these residents should be specifically and meaningfully engaged at all stages of the process, and additional resources should be extended to make sure that this is done properly.

Infrastructure

Commenters generally agreed on the importance of investments in sustainable infrastructure, including many of those identified in the Bridging Gowanus framework’s first recommendation: “Guaranteed investments in sustainable infrastructure upfront,” as well as some that were not identified in the planning framework:

  • Make Superfund cleanup and redevelopment consistent with plans for ecological restoration, shoreline softening, riparian buffers, expanded wetlands, habitat restoration, and increased public access pursuant to the goals of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary Restoration Plan and the community’s emerging vision for the waterway. Some commenters expressed concern that contiguous steel or wooden bulkheads would not be compatible with those goals.

  • Reclassify the Gowanus Canal to require that the water be made clean enough for recreational uses.

  • Require new development to achieve high sustainability standards, in areas including clean power, flood protection, water and sewer runoff, and waste, and to contribute to broader neighborhood and regional environmental solutions.

Some comments (primarily from site owners and potential developers) spoke to the need to be realistic about funding mechanisms for green building and infrastructure, and to consider either providing financial incentives, or being open to reducing other requirements. Some expressed frustration about the expectation that infrastructure investments would be part of a “trade off” for development rights. Some felt it was appropriate to expect developer contributions where additional development is allowed.

Preserving Manufacturing

Commenters generally agreed on the importance of Bridging Gowanus second key recommendation: “Making sure manufacturing can thrive, and residents benefit,” in both the Industrial Business Zone and any future mixed-use area. Comments here included:

  • Assure that properties continue to be used for manufacturing uses by requiring developers or owners to have a non-profit Administrative Agent that reviews leases whenever making improvements using City or EDC financing.

  • Challenge engineering schools to invent retrofits for allowing parallel parked loading and unloading.

Incentivize companies with vehicle fleets to build multi-story garages which will reduce footprints and increase industrial facility space.

  • Be more specific about what non-industrial uses are restricted.

  • Consider the importance of the cement/concrete cluster that saves truck traffic by barging in. Make sure there is enough depth and width of water for barges and tugs.

Several commenters spoke to the importance of workforce development and other strategies to insure that local residents (especially low- and moderate-income residents, from public housing and any new affordable housing) have real opportunities for industrial, infrastructure, cleanup, and “maker” jobs:

  • Link economic and workforce development opportunities to jobs for local residents—not only in mixed-use zones but also in parts of Gowanus recommended to remain industrial.

  • Open up “maker” or other emerging industries to unemployed residents, particularly residents of public housing.

  • Use manufacturing districts to create entry level jobs—involve BIDs, incubators and EDC.

Ensuring an Inclusive Gowanus

Many comments spoke to the need – strongly identified in Bridging Gowanus – to ensure that the future of Gowanus is an inclusive one that includes low- and moderate-income communities. Comments in this area included:

  • Address residential displacement by protecting residents of rent-stabilized (and even non-stabilized) housing through “anti-harassment” zoning policies, such as those in the Clinton Special District, through incentives such as the proposed “good landlord/good neighbor tax credit,” and through increased funding for housing court attorneys and tenant advocates.

  • Repair aging infrastructure and substandard housing conditions in NYCHA developments. Leverage investment in Gowanus to implement resiliency retrofits and climate adaptation measures in NYCHA properties.

  • Address the loss of affordable retail (laundromats, pharmacies, grocery stores, restaurants, health care and childcare) and public amenities that serve public housing residents. Commenters here spoke to the need to address the short-term and long-term fate of Thomas Greene Park and Pool, a potential site identified by the EPA for combined sewer overflow tanks.

  • Insure that affordable housing is targeted for households making 60% AMI and less (approximately the median income for Gowanus households).

  • Create safeguards against segregation in schools.

Density, Development, and Real Commitments

As noted in the Bridging Gowanus Executive Summary: “The areas of disagreement in the Bridging Gowanus public process were around whether, where, and at what scale to allow new residential development.” These disagreements were reflected in the comments we received, which reflected the following observations in the Executive Summary:

  • “In general, Gowanus stakeholders do not see new, market-rate residential development—especially at heights taller than the surrounding brownstone neighborhoods—as a goal in and of itself.”

  • “[M]ost stakeholders recognize that the community will only realize these shared values with some growth and development,” with a majority of participants who were open to some development expressing openness to building of more than 10 stories, “if and only if those buildings genuinely advance the community’s goals for infrastructure, sustainability, good jobs, a mix of uses, and affordability.”

  • “Not everyone agreed. Some participants argued that no new development should be allowed in areas that flooded during Superstorm Sandy. Others felt that new housing could be allowed but should be capped at four or five stories, essentially connecting the brownstone neighborhoods nearby.”

Commenters strongly reiterated these points of view.

Carroll Gardens Coalition for Respectful Development (CG CORD) reported that “We heard voices clearly expressing disdain for out of context, oversized dense development—using the spot-rezoned Lightstone project as a specific example of what they wished to avoid.” Individuals also reiterated the same concern: “I strongly object to the suggestion of 18 story buildings in Gowanus. The rest of your recommendations are commendable but it is wrong to imagine that very tall buildings are part of the solution to our neighborhood’s problems.”

Some commenters questioned the need for new development to realize goals, arguing that infrastructure investments should be made in the neighborhood, without a requirement of new development: “After being used as an open sewer by the City of New York, the Gowanus neighborhood is owed schools, more park spaces and an adequate sewer system without handing the entire community over to developers.”

Other commenters were more open to the overall balance suggested by the Bridging Gowanus framework.  One representative comment of this type: “I am a realist and know that you have to have more density to have more affordability. Our schools are overcrowded and we need more seats for the growing population.” Many of these comments spoke to a particular value – sustainable infrastructure investments, strengthening manufacturing, preserving a mix of uses, affordable housing, the arts – and indicated openness to development as broadly outlined in the Bridging Gowanus report, so long as it was truly and firmly linked to achieving those goals.

Several of these commenters spoke to what would matter as Bridging Gowanus moves forward toward any future land use actions:

  • The Fifth Avenue Committee wrote: “we also we feel it is important for the Gowanus Community to have planners and consultants available at all stages of any proposed rezoning process, including environmental review, to ensure that impacts for any zoning changes are properly analyzed and appropriate remediations recommended in line with the Bridging Gowanus Framework and community’s input.”

  • Another commenter urged for more specificity and participation around the urban design questions: “Create some renderings of the impacts of possible re-zonings (what would a 30 story building look like next to the Gowanus?)”

  • Some commenters praised the tools outlined in Bridging Gowanus to insure that the balance is achieved: the proposed “Gowanus Manufacturing Zone,” and the “mandatory mixed-used zone,” and the Tax Increment Financing proposal. Several commenters spoke to the need to make the “real binding commitments” outlined in the report more concrete.

Criticism of the “Trade-Off” Activity

Finally, several commenters were particularly concerned with the exercise that took place at Public Meeting #3 in June 2014, that sought to broadly measure participants’ openness to development, and to consider “trade-offs” between development and other goals. These commenters critiqued the design of the worksheet as leading, biased in favor of development, unclear and confusing, and overly restrictive in the choices that it asked participants to make. Some also raised concerns that the way the exercise was summarized in the Bridging Gowanus report was inaccurate. Maria Pagano, John Hatheway, and Glenn Kelly of the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association submitted a particularly thoughtful comment on this point.

Understanding that frustration, we would like to clarify the purpose of the exercise. The worksheet was designed to test the public’s appetite for whether a conversation about increased density and the benefits that it could provide the neighborhood should be continued. It was a conceptual exercise to gauge whether there is interest in having a more detailed conversation about the trade-offs involved in increased density, and if so, roughly how much interest exists and which types of neighborhood improvements are seen as most critical.  The scenarios that were offered as part of the exercise were indeed simplified to a conceptual level, but they are rooted in our knowledge as professional planners about potential pathways forward with regard to land use in the area.

While we understand that the exercise may have been frustrating to those who interpreted it literally, that was not the spirit with which it was offered or analyzed.  For the purposes for which it was designed, it revealed interesting and helpful information about how the portion of the public that participated that evening is grappling with the complex questions of how to best accomplish the shared values articulated by the community.  And indeed, a key message from the exercise is that the neighborhood has strong and complicated feelings about additional density in the area. Density for its own sake is generally not welcomed by participants.

While some of the people who said they would entertain increased density indicated that it should be minimal, the majority of people who said they would consider increased density indicated that buildings of 10 stories or higher may be appropriate.  A sample of the range of comments from those worksheets gives a good sense of the spread of neighborhood sentiments, as measured throughout Bridging Gowanus, on the worksheets, and in the comments we received overall:

  • “I cannot accept the height addition in [scenario] #3 as a trade-off for some really good & needed amenities… low-rise, maintain flavor & look of neighborhood… maybe density should be compromised, not free for all building height.”

  • “Not all lots should be zoned for maximum height… no high rise close the canal”

  • Scenario #3 “because the neighborhood has to change and include people who are already here. I believe dense buildings should be built by the subway.”

  • “I believe maintaining the mixed use character is important and new development should reflect the industrial history & character”

  • Selected preferred scenario because “it provides a lot of affordable housing and art spaces” but potential drawbacks could be “very very tall buildings.” Are there particular places where you feel density should or should not be allowed? “Not along the canal, yes along 3rd

  • “I choose Scenario 3 because it offers opportunities for business and amenities with a little density”

  • Scenario #3 because “the option offers best balance for future use & growth”

  • Scenario #3 because “Increasing residential density increases vested interest in environmental cleanup and creates consumer market for high value local manufactured goods”

  • “I am a realist and know that you have to have more density to have more affordability. Our schools are overcrowded and we need more seats for the growing population.”

  • Scenario #3 because “it offers a balance”

However, no where do we interpret that to mean that those respondents said 10-18 story buildings would be appropriate throughout every block in the neighborhood; rather, the conclusion we have drawn from those indications is that there may be areas in the neighborhood where such heights would be acceptable – so long as such density brings tangible, necessary improvements to the neighborhood. Continued conversations about how much density is appropriate, where that density is appropriate, and what benefits must be guaranteed in order to make that new density acceptable to the neighborhood should take place as part of a more fine-grained study with relevant City agencies.

We acknowledge that the parenthetical phrase in the report, indicating that respondents’ answers on the worksheets fell in the range from 8 to 18 stories, was mistakenly interpreted by some news outlets and some members of the public as indicating that the Bridging Gowanus framework was calling for buildings of those heights. We have, therefore, removed this parenthetical phrase from the final report.  

However, we stand by the analysis of the worksheets that shows a clear majority of respondents would entertain the concept of increased density in the neighborhood if it were coupled with improvements that meaningfully advance the community’s shared values – most especially the provision of affordable and deeply affordable housing, investments in sustainable infrastructure (environmental, schools seats, transportation, open space), and the strengthening and preservation of manufacturing, the arts, and the mixed-use character of the neighborhood.