Activating the Plan
Making the shared vision for Gowanus a reality

Making the shared vision for Gowanus a reality will require more than just a description of a vision. A real plan must include upfront funding commitments, mechanisms to oversee the implementation of projects, and strong enforcement of the rules established.

There is fair reason for skepticism regarding whether the vision articulated in the plan can actually be accomplished. Promises to clean up the Gowanus Canal have been coming for a century. Land use actions in other parts of the city have failed to deliver on many stated intentions, including infrastructure, open space, and affordable housing. As noted above, the city’s current mixed-use zone (“MX”) allows residential development as-of-right, and has therefore allowed wholesale conversion of manufacturing areas to residential. Construction violations by private developers in Gowanus have also become a substantial nuisance.

We believe that real and significant progress toward this vision is possible at this moment, thanks to a powerful confluence of forces. The Superfund cleanup, together with clarity of the need for strengthened resiliency in the face of climate change, are pushing forward some of the necessary infrastructure investments. The de Blasio Administration is focused on preserving and creating affordable housing, and has committed to doing so in a way that attends to infrastructure, neighborhood planning, and maintaining mixed-use communities. Bridging Gowanus offers a way to bring those goals together.

Several elements of this plan are especially important to insure that the rules are followed, and the community’s goals are achieved:

Upfront capital commitments: A combination of funding sources for environmental and social infrastructure must be committed at the onset of this plan. Some of this will be provided through the Superfund cleanup, and it is possible that Federal funds could be used to pay for flood protection. However, significant additional capital funding will be required – from the dedicated Gowanus TIF proposed in the plan, from New York City’s capital budget, and/or through commitments from developers. These should not be promises or non-binding “Memorandum of Agreement.” They must be real, binding commitments.

+ Environmental quality partnership: A partnership of all levels of government and neighborhood stakeholders that builds on (and preserves) the EPA’s Superfund authority, and includes the City DEP’s Long Term Control Plan for CSOs, storm water management and flooding reduction goals, flood protection, and the State DEC’s oversight of brownfield cleanups should be established to coordinate across projects and keep strong regulatory attention to cleanup obligations for years to come. The partnership must maintain significant community stakeholder engagement.

Manufacturing preservation through enforcement and incentives:

++ NYC DOB must aggressively enforce the rules, in both the “Gowanus Manufacturing Zone” and in the “Mandatory Mixed Use Zone” to ensure that illegal conversions do not crop up.

++ Incentives should be provided for developers to place makerspaces and affordable housing in the hands of mission-driven organizations, for whom the “rules” are actually “goals.”

+ Anti-harassment and anti-displacement provisions for tenants: New residential development should not be allowed without strong protections for existing tenants in the area.

+ Resources for essential programming: Certain critical goals of Bridging Gowanus, such as local job linkages, will require a commitment of programmatic resources. Funding sources must be identified and committed at the front end of the plan moving forward.

+ Construction compact: Environmental cleanup, infrastructure, and development projects in the Gowanus area will inevitably create headaches for local residents and businesses (as witnessed by the Lightstone Development, Flushing Tunnel reconstruction, and High Level Storm Sewers project). To manage these to the best extent possible, a construction compact should be established, which includes all entities engaged in significant construction, together with stakeholder, agency, elected official, and Community Board 6 representatives. This will provide a better framework for quick responses to violations, in development as well as infrastructure projects. Resources must be provided for oversight and cooperation.

+ Community oversight: Local oversight representing residents and stakeholders is needed to track progress, address concerns, and solve problems that will arise in activating and implementing this community planning framework. Both Community Board 6 and the Community Advisory Group (CAG) for the EPA’s Superfund effort should be central to this oversight – which may involve a new group dedicated to this task. Such a group would meet quarterly with public agencies and elected officials to review progress toward implementation.

Building upon the Bridging Gowanus effort, there is an opportunity to convert the effort and energy that went into the creation of this vision into a reality for the neighborhood. To be successful, the community will have to demonstrate its clarity of purpose and unwavering commitment to its shared values. And the de Blasio Administration will have to answer that call with the new planning tools upon which this vision is predicated. With sustained effort, it will be possible to achieve a future for Gowanus that is motivated by this vision.

This is a significant challenge, but one worth rising to. Gowanus might just be able to demonstrate a model for a vibrant, sustainable, inclusive, mixed-use neighborhood in a low-lying, once-polluted industrial area on a warming planet.