Ensuring a Genuine Mix of Uses
Background and Key Issues to Address

Industrial, Residential, and Commercial Uses

In contrast to its heavily residential neighboring communities like Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, Gowanus is characterized by industrial, residential, and commercial uses mixing and co-mingling block to block and sometimes door to door. Throughout the planning process a majority of stakeholders consistently expressed that they value the mixed-use nature of Gowanus and that they want to see this character preserved and strengthened.

 

Mixed-use block at Bond and Union Photo credit: Pratt Center for Community Development

Mixed-use block at Bond and Union Photo credit: Pratt Center for Community Development

However, Gowanus’ current mixed-use character is precarious. The challenge to maintaining and even growing the current mix is that individual land use actions (e.g., spot rezonings and zoning waivers or variances) are haphazardly chipping away at the balance of uses and threatening its longevity. As real estate pressures continue to mount, the manufacturing-zoned areas are becoming susceptible to private land owners filing variance and rezoning applications to build structures like the large Whole Foods store and the residential Lightstone development. Most of these new uses serve to drive up property values, which in turn inspires land speculation, which threatens to displace the manufacturing businesses that remain.

 

 

Both business and residential communities have the strong potential to thrive in a balanced, stable, mixed-use area. Many of the light industrial and commercial sectors that are doing well in Gowanus (such as creative and maker firms) are environmentally compatible with other uses, including housing. Also, businesses often want to be near their consumer markets, and mixed-use neighborhoods can promote workers’ ability to walk to work.

New York City’s existing land use tools are inadequate for promoting stable, balanced mixed-use areas that remain mixed-use in perpetuity. The “MX” zoning designation introduced by the NYC Department of City Planning in 1997 and used in 15 districts throughout the city allows for manufacturing and housing to co-exist within a district, but it does not have any provisions for maintaining a balance of uses. Therefore, MX zones are vulnerable to market forces and what began as genuinely mixed-use areas will, under MX zoning, slowly convert to be largely dominated by new development of non-industrial uses. For example, between 2004 and 2012, the MX districts in Greenpoint-Williamsburg (which were designated in 2005) experienced a 60% reduction in land area devoted to manufacturing land uses. A recent student thesis cites the loss of 24 out of 32 manufacturing businesses in just one 14-block area of the new Greenpoint-Williamsburg MX district; the market pressure created by the potential to develop property for residential use, unchecked by any provision in the MX zoning, is clearly a force too strong for the manufacturing sector to withstand.1)Chavez, Christina R. (2014). Learning from Greenpoint and Williamsburg: Zoning and The Future of Industry in New York City (Unpublished master’s thesis). Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York.

While it might be desirable to have mixed residential and industrial uses in one building from both an economic development and an aesthetics or lifestyle perspective, it is challenging financially and operationally, and very difficult to enforce. Combining these uses often adds expenses for sound attenuation, ventilation, safe egress and movement of goods within the building, which creates a premium cost that must be paid by the manufacturer or the tenant for the mix of uses in a building.

An alternative approach to preserving some of the mixed-use character of the area would be to foster a mixed-use district in which residential and industrial buildings existed side by side. The could be achieved through a development rights transfer option that required that property owners provided manufacturing onsite but that gave developers the option of providing industrial space elsewhere in the district. A development rights transfer district would preserve production space but avoid some of the premium costs which would ultimately reduce the cost for either the industrial or residential tenant.

Historically Significant Places and Buildings

Community members have expressed a strong desire to preserve the physical fabric of key historic places and buildings, especially those related to industrial history, as well as to capture the scale, character and unique sense of place of the neighborhood. Preserving the maritime character around the canal, the industrial and residential mix that reflects the working class history of the area, and public access to the canal’s edge, have been expressed as a preservation priorities by many in the community. However, there are differing opinions about whether specific preservation strategies and designations are desirable for the neighborhood.

Arts and Culture

The production and dissemination of arts and culture is of particular importance in Gowanus and is a strong part of the neighborhood’s mixed-use nature and multi-layered cultural identity. In addition, arts and culture have a strong synergy with light industry in the neighborhood. Creative professionals with artist/artisan studios, galleries, and performance spaces have been flocking to the area for its relatively affordable space for many years, a trend that is threatened because of rising real estate pressures. At the same time, a broad range of community cultural expression and civic participation should be accommodated with spaces that include public housing residents, immigrant groups, youth, and creative/”maker” businesses. Therefore, strategies for preserving and increasing spaces for art and culture must be integrated into many approaches, including those described in the “Greenscape” recommendation described in the infrastructure section.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Chavez, Christina R. (2014). Learning from Greenpoint and Williamsburg: Zoning and The Future of Industry in New York City (Unpublished master’s thesis). Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York.