Wednesday, October 30, 2013

No Gowanus Planning Without Meaningful Representation: Let's Demand A Truly Democratic Process

From 2008's City Planning Gowanus Draft Rezoning Proposal
Pratt Center's Draft Timeline For "Gowanus Community Planning"

Proposed Gowanus Zoning study area

No Gowanus Planning Without Meaningful Representation:
A rather long post about a terribly important issue

With the Brooklyn real estate market soaring in the last decade, developers have been salivating over the mostly-industrial Gowanus Canal area.  However, their dreams of luxury glass-clad high-rises clashes with the popular vision of Gowanus as an incubator for small businesses, light manufacturing and the arts.
Local residents have been debating the merits of one over the other with much fervor. The conversation became more divisive when, in November 2008, New York City Department of Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden came to the community to introduce her agency's Draft Rezoning Proposal for 25 blocks along the Gowanus Canal. The land use framework put forth by City Planning addressed issues like land use, density, bulk and waterfront access.
Though the rezoning proposal sought to maintain areas for continued industrial and commercial use,
it also allowing for a mix of uses, including residential, in certain areas currently zoned for manufacturing.  According to the timeline presented by City Planning at the time, the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), the public review process of a rezoning, was due to begin in early 2009.

What City Planning was envisioning for those mixed-use areas would soon become clear.  In February 2009, after a contentious ULURP process and much community opposition, City Planning granted Toll Brothers, a national developer, a rezoning from manufacturing to mixed use, allowing Toll to build 470 residential condo units at the edge of the canal.
At the time, City Planning justified their decision to allow Toll Brothers to move ahead of the City's over-all rezoning by saying that the project was essentially based on their own plans for Gowanus.

But just two months later, in April 2009,  the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the 1.8 mile long Gowanus Canal to the Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List, a list reserved for the country's most polluted sites.  Toll Brothers bailed on their project, and City Planning shelved their rezoning.

By the following year, the EPA had formally designated the Gowanus a Superfund site.  The agency made it clear that they would not get involved in land-use issues, but suggested that it would be helpful to the agency to know the end use of the uplands.

Then in 2011, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the area, and caused serious flooding to homes and businesses in Gowanus.  City Planning made clear that the agency had no plans to resume its rezoning effort until Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had released its redrawn post-Sandy draft flood maps.

After the hurricane, many of our local elected officials addressed this 'new reality.' Congresswoman Velázquez spoke of the need to set public policy and of a revision of the type of development allowed along the coastline. Councilman Brad Lander felt that this was a very important time, one which offered a re-set button in regards to development on the shores of the Gowanus Canal.

The Superfund nomination of the canal and the hurricane only offered a short reprieve from a rezoning. By this spring, Councilman Lander was ready to resume the conversation about 'planning for Gowanus'. However, at several meetings, he hinted that a rezoning should be moved forward under a new administration,  and that "the upcoming transition at City Hall – with a new Mayor and City Planning Commission – presents an opportunity for a better outcome."

On August 5, 2013, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, State Assemblywoman Joan Millman,  Councilmember Steven Levin and Councilmember Lander convened  a Gowanus Planning Kick-Off meeting. On the list of invited stakeholders were representatives from local organizations and neighborhood associations.***
This first step in what Councilman Brad Lander called "inclusive community planning" didn't seem so inclusive to some.  The meeting was not announced, not posted in any way on the internet,  not open to the general public and was closed to the press.

Pratt Center for Community Development (not to be confused with the Pratt Institute) has been hired by the elected officials as the consultant that is running the planning process.
According to an overview  prepared by Pratt, the goal of these planning meetings is to:
*Develop the outlines of a comprehensive, community‐based infrastructure and land‐use plan for a safe, vibrant, and sustainable Gowanus area
*Bring community stakeholders together to build as much consensus as we can around a long‐term vision for the Gowanus Canal area
*Shape the next NYC mayoral administration’s thinking about the Gowanus Canal
*Create a space for honest conversation about different viewpoints

Just recently, Pratt has held a series of small group interviews with the stakeholders who were invited to the first meeting.  I was asked to participate in the group that apparently "cared deeply about the environment."  The interview, held on Monday evening, was led by Elena Conte and Paula Crespo of Pratt.  The questions were rather basic and covered such topics as what makes Gowanus special, what should be preserved, and what are some of the infrastructure issues.  

My group included members from CORDSave Gowanus, and South Brooklyn Local Development.
(FROGG, though invited, did not send a representative because the group put into question the validity of the process.)
The group quickly seemed to reach consensus that before moving ahead with any re-zoning, a health study and a hydrological study were needed to investigate the health effects of exposure to the environmental hazards in Gowanus, and to evaluate the effect of new development in this flood prone area. We also felt that we first need assurances that the City Of New York will pay and follow through  on the EPA-mandated retention basins that will help reduce the Combined Sewer Overflows and improve water quality in the canal.  Without these studies and without the retention basins, planning more housing in Gowanus seemed "recklessly premature."

In the coming weeks, Pratt Center will compile the information from these interviews and will then host a series of three public meetings.  The first one is scheduled for Thursday, November 14th.  (The time and place has not yet been determined.  As soon as I find out, I will post the information.)

Personally, I remain very skeptical of this entire 'Gowanus planning' process and doubt that the community will have a true say or vote in the outcome.  Though I appreciate the opportunity to weigh in on the area's future,  I can't shake the suspicion that my participation in these meetings only serves to rubber-stamp a re-zoning plan that has already been chosen by our politicians and by developers.

As far as Brad's suggestion that planning under a new city administration presents the opportunity for a better outcome, he may be mistaken.
As the latest numbers indicate, Bill deBlasio will most likely be our next mayor.  DeBlasio not only supported the Toll Brothers spot-rezoning back in '08, he fought hard to drive away the EPA when the agency proposed to list the Gowanus as a Superfund.
If DeBlasio wins , we can be sure that he will hand over the Gowanus Canal to developers on a silver platter, no matter what we say.
"I give Mayor Bloomberg tremendous credit for fighting [the EPA] tooth and nail, and I was proud to stand with him. We tried every play in the book to save the [Toll Brothers'] development deal.
In the end, the EPA won out, the development stalled and every time I drive past that site I see derelict lots where we should now have hundreds of new homes and jobs.

I couldn't disagree more. Today, the Gowanus Canal area is slowly healing after years of neglect. Small businesses and a vibrant artist community are thriving there.  Jobs are being created.  Yes, the area has some serious environmental problems, but thanks to the EPA, they are being addressed.  What seems to be holding back Gowanus is the threat of a zoning change that will most likely drive away many businesses, and the speculation by developers that a re-zoning will reward them for holding on to their 'derelict lots'.

We owe it to ourselves and to all who will come after us to take our seat at the table, and to push for a true, transparent, democratic process.  We need to tell our politicians that before any new development is envisioned, we need to first find out what the Gowanus can sustain.  We need to first invest in infrastructure to strengthen the businesses and the residential areas that are already there, and we need to demand new tools in City Planning's tool box.  Because Gowanus is unique and deserves solutions that are just as unique.

***I was invited to the August meeting but was out of the country and could not attend.



Anonymous said...

How much is Pratt being paid for another study? How can CM Lander allocate City Tax funds to them without any public RFP? Is it a conflict of interest for Council Members to funnel money to former employers?

Anonymous said...

The only reason that Gowanus is developing the way that it is is because of restrictive zoning. The reason you see small manufacturing and artists and hotels popping up here is because that is all that the zoning will allow!

So, you are arguing and advocating for a circular logic that serves to do one thing: keep newcomers out of the neighborhood, and keep your life unchanged. You can't say that we need restrictive, low-density, 1920's zoning...because there is a community of artists here...because of the restrictive, low-density zoning.

That is lazy, and frankly, selfish.

Cynthia said...

I find it odd that the director of the South Brooklyn Local Development was placed in the environment as their obvious area of expertise would be business. This is just another indicator that our council member is not serious about true community engagement and participation on this matter. Of course we knew this in August when people who had found out about the planning meeting and expressed interest in attending were told they could not. This is troubling given that Pratt is being paid with public funds, the meeting was in a public school building and included our other public officials. Lander seemed to put as much effort into curtailing community participation in this critically important issue as he does for his participatory budgeting.

In a letter to the Brooklyn Paper dated August 20, 2013 Brad Lander claims this meeting was not "secret" and was merely closed to the press. He neglected to mentions that it was also closed to his constituents as myself and others were told they could not attend:

Sunshine is the best disinfectant!

Anonymous said...

Was the We Are Gowanus group invited to these meetings? I know some of them are in Levin's district but once the redistricting takes effect in January the blocks abutting the canal will be in Lander's district (cute how that worked out) so I think this issue would be of great interest to them and their neighbors.

Katia said...

As far as I know, no one from We Are Gowanus had been invited to the initial meeting. At least the name of the group did no appear up on the list of those invited.

Katia said...

To anon 10:49 AM
We may have different viewpoints, but hope that you will join the conversation. I strongly suggest you call Brad Lander's office at 718-499-1090
or email him at and demand to have a seat at the table.

As a matter of fact, I hope everyone contacts our Councilman to ask to be included in this process.

Anonymous said...

I am a little confused. Does the second map by Pratt state what the CURRENT zoning is? Is there a map with the proposed zoning changes?

JL said...

I guess the question I have is - if we keep Gowanus low-density, how does that address the skyrocketing cost of living in the surrounding area? Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope and Cobble Hill obviously should be kept in-tact as is, but the lovely historic architecture only allows for so much housing in a bustling, expensive borough. If Gowanus is kept with low density and little housing inventory - how will that address the increasing prices in the area? Don't get me wrong, I think any major developments would be presumably luxury units, but at least it adds the potential for the bubble to not burst quite as much, right? I'm worried about getting priced out of the neighborhood!

Anonymous said...

JL - I moved to Carroll Gardens in 2001 and I can not BELIEVE how many people have been priced out in the last few years in particular. We moved over to the Gowanus area a few years ago and I swear every week I hear of someone else having to leave Carroll Gardens because their building is being sold or the rent was raised again. Rents have easily tripled in the neighborhood. It is sad and it sucks. Luckily we found someplace relatively close, but a lot of others have moved out to Crown Hts and Bed Stuy in search of affordable places to rent or buy.

Katia said...

Adding more housing to a neighborhood doesn't mean that home prices and rentals will remain affordable. Just look at Williamsburg. With all the buildings that went up there in the past ten years, prices have gone up tremendously.

And look at Carroll Gardens. With the buildings like 360 Smith Street, the Satori, 100 Luquer Street and Union/Sackett that have been added to the housing stock, the rents still go up.

For decades, Carroll Gardens was an affordable neighborhood to the working class. Now that developers and real estate interests have turned their attention to CG, Boerum Hill and Gowanus, few can afford to live here.

That's just the reality.

Anonymous said...

I think it is cavalier for those who were able to buy brownstones decades ago, when they were affordable, to say "that's just the reality" when it comes to people being priced out of the neighborhood they love. Many of us have lived here a long time, send our kids to school here and feel a great sense of community here - yet can't stay because prices are so high now. There needs to be more affordable housing, it doesn't all have to be high rise and it is a shame to give up on that fight just because you are comfortable in your brownstone.

Katia said...

It's easy to resort to personal attacks, harder to make the time to fight for true community input in Gowanus.

My point was that right now, Gowanus is still 'relatively' affordable. Open it up to development, and prices will go up.

With all Mayor Candidate Bill DeBlasio's talk of creating affordable housing, I dare you to tell me where and how many units he created during his 8 years as our councilman.

I do own a brownstone, which my husband and I bought 27 years ago. We were cash strapped for many years, renovated one room at a time ourselves on week-ends, and raised two kids, who, like yours, went to PS 58, when it was still an underperforming neighborhood school. Later, they attended middle school and high school in Manhattan, because there were no acceptable choices here yet. (private school was not a financial option.)

I am thankful every day that we were able to buy our house. If we had not done so, we would have had to move away long ago. That is happening to many very dear friends who raised their kids alongside me in Carroll Gardens. It breaks my heart to see them leave.

The most important point I wanted to make in this post is that we need to ALL be at the table and take back this planning process from our politicians and from development.

The public is not involved in land-use discussions any more, because long before you and I are allowed to give our opinion, back room deals have been made.
The ULURP process is broken and a sham.

We need to demand a change. Will you help?

Call Councilman Lander's office at 718-499-1090 or email him at and ask to be included. And while you are at it, ask him why no info is posted on his website about the meetings that already have taken place.

Anonymous said...

So we'll keep housing affordable by keeping supply low. Let me know how that works out. More like or "I gots mine"

Katia said...

Again, I would like to point out that New York City's housing stock is larger than it has ever been. Have the home prices and rental prices gone down? No.

And reverting back to " Nimby" insults is getting really old. Take your seat at the table and let's discuss this as a community. That's the only way we are going to get the outcome we want and need.
Demand participation in this planning process, and call Brad Lander's office to tell him that you want a transparent process.
But if you would rather have our Councilman discuss the future of Gowanus by 'invitation only" as he has so far, I guess you shouldn't bother.

Michael said...

Katia, I think you are completely accurate in this assessment. It's too bad there are these wolves in sheep's clothing, Blander and de Blahsio, who are handing over all of the neighborhood all the while labeling themselves "progressive" and claiming to be creating affordable housing (which they never bring about). It's insane that Blander and de Blahsio can say these things and get away with it. Our local media seems complicit ...or asleep.

Of course, local yokel fronts for mob & development - Buddy Scotto, his daughter Debra, John Heyer, and Craig Hammerman & CB6 have done enormous damage also.

I had to move out of Carroll Gardens after 10 years for the very reasons you mentioned. It is a shame that people don't seem to care enough and that de Blahsio is going to become the next mayor based on a terribly NOT progressive record, being that he is deeply duplicitous (as Blander is). Where did these rats come from and why is representation so terrible in an ostensibly intelligent city??

Michael said...

Anon 9:34 - Your argument just sounds like Scotto, Hammerman, or Paul Ryan or some sort of manipulative Libertarian/Repugly rationale for deregulating everything and simply letting the market dictate everything, which never works. Clearly, you have no grasp of basic economics. I really would like to see agitators like you not comment on intelligent threads like Katia's here - or at least have the balls to put your name on here, so we can know what you're about and be careful around economic fools such as yourself when we're in the same room as you.

Generally, your type infiltrates and agitates, anonymously. And then runs off down a dark alleyway like a bad dog.

Anonymous said...

To AnonymousOctober 30, 2013 10:49 AM who said: "That is lazy, and frankly, selfish." Lets explore that idea of selfishness. . . .

Building is in itself a most selfish act. It's not just the part about claiming the site, but the building process, no matter how intense a "Green" you color it, is a most sellfish imposition upon Gods Creation. As stewards of Gods Creation, we have a responsibility of balancing our very selfish taking (that is building) with environmental measures that allow for a sustainable, balanced environment. That sometimes requires granting space for habitat for some of the other creatures in God's Creation. Just because it possible to engineer buildings in a coastal flood zone, which is under stress of climate change and sea-level rise, with some minor management of environmental factors, doesn't mean that such construction is comparable with good stewardship of creation.

Estuaries are the some of the most productive ecological habitates within Gods Creation. The work that nature preforms in a functioning estuary does more to balance things like carbon levels throughout the water, air, and biosphere, than other ecological habitats. Humans have sorely degraded these very productive ecological habitats along much of the Atlantic coast.

Gowanus, even with it's bullheaded edges, is still an estuary along an important coastal harbor. The Gowanus estuary already suffers greatly form the present burden of the mono-culture of human habitation within it's watershed.

The land that we call Brooklyn, belongs to all of Gods Creation. Surely we can put aside our human selfishness to allow a small, but very significant area (which is far more suited to so many of God's other species and so hostile to humans) for nature to do its good work in this vital coastal area. The highest-and-best-use of areas like Gowanus is to allow them to be put into service to serve all of Gods Creation, especially those suited to such habitats.

There isn't a more imaginable selfish use of the banks of the Gowanus than the construction of more human housing boxes; especially the many thousands that this call for rezoning promises to bring. Our smart engineers can certainly do their magic tricks that allow building on flood land, but they havent't yet devised a trick that eliminates building shadows, and estuaries just don't function well in shadow. And they certainly haven't had much success managing all that concentrated human waste filling the canal.

If our landuse policies are so sorely broken that we can no longer see the special unique qualities and value of the basic geology in which we live, then maybe it is best to leave it all to be swallowed up by the ocean, which the ocean seems happily obliged to do.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Katia
Brad Lander is just as corrupt as Bill DeBlasio when he represented this area. How many pieces of silver did Brad get from Lightstone??

Where will Brad be when we can't get on the F train?? Where will Brad be when the next flood happens on the Gowanus Canal?
Where will Brad be when the fire engines are late getting to the new buildings after they were closed?? Classes are held in "Temporary" trailers at PS 32 for 10 years.... can classes be held at Brad's house for the young kids? The flushing tunnel is still not finished but Atlantic Yards got finished in less time!!
Shame on you Brad. You are as corrupt as Bill DeBlasio. Secret meetings and unopposed elections remind me of the Soviet Union......