Planning for the future of Gowanus

Planning for the future of Gowanus

When we launched the “Bridging Gowanus” community planning process a year ago, we knew we were taking on a big challenge. 

We’ve seen (and smelled) the fetid water after a rainfall.  I was there when it flooded its banks during Hurricane Sandy.  And we knew these toxic waters might seem still compared to asking Brooklynites to debate too-often-polarizing questions about development, density, infrastructure, industry, and housing. 

But deciding not to engage seemed worse.  Should we just wait and let developers make plans of their own (or pretend that they won’t)?  Should we allow hotels, big-box stores, and self-storage facilities (all currently allowed “as-of-right” throughout the Gowanus) overrun the whole area?  Should we miss the opportunity to frame the community’s priorities for the new mayoral administration?

So – together with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblywoman Joan Millman, and Council Member Steve Levin, and in consultation with a wide range of community groups – my office convened the Bridging Gowanus process last fall with this goal: “To develop a comprehensive framework for the infrastructure and land use regulations needed for a safe, vibrant, and sustainable Gowanus, through a broad-based, inclusive, transparent and robust process.”  

Like most things we do – bringing participatory budgeting to NYC, helping coordinate the remarkable community response after Hurricane Sandy, or reforming the rules of the City Council – we’ve worked to make Bridging Gowanus as inclusive and transparent as we could.  We worked with the Pratt Center for Community Development (leaders in community-based planning) to design a process that would allow many diverse stakeholders to take part and have their voices heard.   

Over the past year, several hundred people – long-time and newer residents, manufacturers and business owners, artists, environmental leaders, tenant leaders and affordable housing advocates, and yes, even some representatives of developers who own property – have taken part in many hours of public meetings through Bridging Gowanus.  We’ve held three large community meetings (with 150-200 people each), along with many workshops, working group meetings, and small group interviews. We’ve focused on small group discussions to encourage face-to-face conversations (but always with report-backs to the full group).  And we’ve made the meeting materials and recordings available to all online. 

We’re not quite done – we’ll be putting out a draft framework in the fall – but I wanted to let you know where things stand.

Where we agree …

While there are certainly some areas of discord, there’s actually substantial agreement on many fundamental principles:

  • Invest in the infrastructure:  We need to make sure the EPA Superfund cleanup is matched with real water-quality improvements by the City of New York and a coordinated cleanup of contaminated “uplands,” take steps to prevent flooding from rain and storm surges, provide new school seats, and improve public transportation.
  • A genuine mix of uses:  No one wants the whole area converted to condos.  Unfortunately, New York City’s existing model for “mixed use” zoning has allowed “as-of-right” residential development to fully displace businesses.  So we need a new model to balance light industry, artists and cultural uses, retail, and housing in appropriate locations
  • Making sure manufacturing can thrive:  A balanced city needs space for industry.  The Gowanus has a mix of design and construction, creative, innovation/technology, and other manufacturing businesses that we should preserve and support.  We need stronger protections – including prohibitions on “as-of-right” uses like hotels, big-box stores, and office buildings that threaten to displace these businesses. We were reminded of this fact this week, when the community learned of plans to site a new parole office along the canal.
  • Preserve and create affordable housing:  Where new housing is allowed, we must make sure a significant share is affordable.  And we need to protect and invest in the affordable housing we already have, especially the Gowanus Houses, Warren Houses, and Wyckoff Gardens NYCHA developments. 
  • Gowanus green-scape:  The Canal should be publicly accessible.  The area needs some new open space, and to fix up some of the older parks (like St. Mary’s Playground and Ennis Playground).  And they should be connected by safe places to walk, ride, and (yes) boat.  
  • Preserve the character of Gowanus:  We want to preserve iconic buildings and structures (part of why I worked to preserve the Kentile Floors sign for future re-use), the strong arts and cultural presence (like Arts Gowanus, Proteus Gowanus, and Powerhouse Workshop), and some of the history and character that makes the Gowanus Canal a compelling place.

… and some real areas of disagreement

That doesn’t mean we agree on everything, of course.

The big areas of disagreement are – no surprise here – around whether, where, and at what scale we should allow residential development.

Some think we shouldn’t have any new development in areas that flooded during Hurricane Sandy.  Some think residential development should be allowed, but capped at 4 or 5 stories, essentially connecting Carroll Gardens and Park Slope with another low-rise neighborhood.  Some are open to taller buildings in some places if they genuinely advance the goals outlined above, believing that density near transit, if well-planned and designed, could offer “smart growth” and leverage investments in infrastructure and affordability.

These are not easy questions – and people in our community feel passionately about them – so it's no surprise the meetings have been contentious.  To be honest, it would be a failure if they had not been.  And there are, of course, still people skeptical of the process, who feel it hasn’t been democratic enough, or that it was rigged from the beginning.  Some chose to organize an additional community meeting in response.  Those voices will also be included in the framework report that will be complete this fall, as they have been throughout the process to date.

But I believe Bridging Gowanus has already been a real success.  It has been great to hear from hundreds of neighbors about their strong hopes, fears, and ideas, to find areas of consensus, and to see people try to listen to each other across lines of difference.  If you haven’t been able to attend, you can watch the first, second, and third community meetings online.  And we’re still eager for your thoughts, which you can share here.

I have personally learned a lot from the planning process already, and my thinking on the Gowanus has been altered in many ways.  As we move toward toward a draft planning framework this fall, I hope you’ll continue to share your ideas with us.

If we get this right, we might just be able to demonstrate a model – for a sustainable, inclusive, mixed-use neighborhood; in a low-lying, once-polluted industrial area; on a warming planet.

I hope you’ll agree it’s worth trying.

Brad