A Pathway for Responsible Growth
Key Considerations

These four core values – upfront commitments to investment in sustainable infrastructure, making sure manufacturing can thrive, insuring a genuine mix of uses, and preserving and advancing affordability – are shared by the overwhelming majority of Gowanus stakeholders.

The areas of disagreement in the Bridging Gowanus public process were around whether, where, and at what scale to allow new residential development. 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.

However, most stakeholders recognize that the community will only realize these shared values with some growth and development. Allowing some residential development – in proscribed locations, with attention to sustainability standards and design, and with the requirements and investments noted in this plan – will create the real estate value that will make it economically viable to pay for upfront infrastructure investments (including environmental cleanup, flood protection, open space and transportation), create and/or preserve production spaces, and maintain affordability.

Realizing the reality of trade-offs, and given the participatory nature of Bridging Gowanus, we gave local stakeholders an opportunity to weigh the difficult choices required for meeting the community’s goals. At the third large-scale community planning session in June 2014 (attended by well over 100 neighborhood stakeholders), we conducted an exercise for the public to weigh the hard choices of density and development. This is infrequently done in community planning, since it can highlight differences and provoke controversy. But it was important to confront these issues directly, given their centrality to the future of Gowanus.

Along with supporting plans that a significant portion of the neighborhood remain zoned for manufacturing, more than 60% of participants supported creating a balanced mixed-use zone that allows some increased residential density in order to meet a variety of community goals. Moreover, nearly three-quarters of the participants who chose this scenario expressed openness to buildings of more than 10 stories (with a distribution of opinion spread about equally from 8 to 18 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 Hurricane Sandy. Others felt that new housing could be allowed but should be capped at four or five stories, essentially connecting the brownstone neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope with another low-rise neighborhood. There was some dissent from the trade-off exercise (as there has been throughout the process) – about a dozen people were angry about it and did not participate. And there is certainly broader skepticism that developers will get what they want, while the community will not get the protections, regulations, and investments that are needed to meet its goals.

However, most participants felt that change would be inevitable – and that it is therefore better to assert influence over that change than pursue a “no action-no change” strategy. Without a plan for the neighborhood’s future, the status quo presents several risks: continued flooding and environmental degradation, spot rezonings and variances that will eventually result in major land use changes lacking comprehensive planning, and the ongoing proliferation of hotels, big-box stores, self-storage facilities, and nightclubs that are allowed as-of-right.

More than that: many stakeholders believe that the shared vision for a strong Gowanus future – one with infrastructure that can handle the challenges of our times, with a vibrant mix of uses, and reflective of Brooklyn’s diversity – can best be achieved through a responsible plan for smart and balanced development. The Bridging Gowanus planning framework therefore strives to create a balanced, nuanced pathway for targeted and responsible growth, so that Gowanus can be a more sustainable, equitable, inclusive, and livable neighborhood.

We did not endeavor in this process to prepare a map, a specific urban design, or height and bulk rules for new buildings. Rather, what has been developed is a framework and the guidelines for more specific decision-making. Urban design plans for Gowanus have been undertaken by a range of designers and architects in recent years.Innovative recent design efforts in Gowanus include dlandstudio, Eco-Gowanus, Gowanus By Design/Gowanus LowLine, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy’s Gowanus Design Summit, and TEDxGowanus. As part of Bridging Gowanus, the Center for Urban Pedagogy also conducted a neighborhood workshop on Gowanus urban design. Part of the challenge for the NYC Department of City Planning in getting Gowanus right will involve working with community stakeholders to build from this framework toward a full-fledged plan. To guide that effort, Bridging Gowanus stakeholders spoke to a series of principles:

+ The current Industrial Business Zone should be preserved for manufacturing, with no residential development allowed (and strengthened into the Gowanus Manufacturing Zone, as outlined above).

+ Any new zone allowing residential development in areas that were previously zoned for manufacturing should be both “mandatory mixed-use” and “mandatory inclusionary zoning.”

+ Thoughtful attention must be paid to building design to encourage integration with the existing neighborhood aesthetic.

+ A mix of heights should be incorporated (to avoid the Fourth Avenue canyon effect).

+ Activate ground floor uses (primarily with makerspaces) to animate the streetscape.

+ Canal front properties must comply with waterfront open space requirements, active ground floor uses, and connections and enhancements to the Gowanus greenscape network.

Establish high sustainability standards (e.g. onsite storm water retention, flood protection, low or no emissions, low or no waste).

+ Standards should be in place for good, safe, quality jobs, with an emphasis on hiring local residents.

+ Thoughtful attention must be paid to building design to encourage integration with the existing neighborhood aesthetic.

Achieving these goals adds significant expense to development, and it will be necessary to develop clear, specific, feasible requirements that strike the right balance. If requirements are too onerous, projects will not be built, and these goals will not be delivered. However, in more recent years the opposite has occurred: too little has been required, and development has proceeded without meeting community goals.

Elaborating the specific standards was beyond the scope of Bridging Gowanus, and will need to account for the de Blasio Administration’s current policy work on mandatory inclusionary zoning, 421-a tax exemption reform, industrial and mixed-use zoning. However, to begin this process, we asked the New York City Council’s Land Use Division to analyze and estimate the potential value increases that could result from rezoning some areas around the Gowanus Canal to allow residential uses. This analysis (made public as part of Bridging Gowanus) identifies highly significant increases in both land values and potential tax revenue if sites were rezoned (ranging from 4 to 24 times their current value, depending on assumptions about the changes). These increases in values – resulting from public action – are sufficient to achieve significant public goals identified in this framework, and still meet return rates needed for private investment and development

It is important to note that the timeline for new development will need to be synchronized with the Gowanus Canal Superfund cleanup, which will take place over the next decade. Dredging the length of the Canal and installing two new CSO detention tanks will have significant impacts at all sites along the canal, and potentially many nearby. In addition, especially for sites along the Canal, the specific requirements of the cleanup itself (e.g. consent decree payments, site remediation, bulkhead replacement) will directly impact the economics and design of any future efforts. As the details of the cleanup emerge over the next year, they will need to inform plans for development.

We have sought to listen carefully. Many of the elements of this plan come from residents who we know will disagree with the provision for new residential development. We invite interested residents to submit responses that will accompany this document, so others will be able to consider all points of view.

 

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Read the Gowanus Value Analysis by New York City Council Land Use Division