The city’s Gowanus rezoning may be on life support, but one pro-development group is working to revive it.
Open New York, a volunteer group that focuses on changing the city’s zoning laws to allow for more housing, launched a letter-writing campaign this week encouraging the city to move forward with its plan to rezone the Brooklyn neighborhood despite the pandemic bringing the process to a halt.
The organization describes Gowanus as “the only affluent, majority-white, high-opportunity neighborhood that the de Blasio administration has proposed rezoning for greater densities” and that allowing it to fail “will confirm the worst suspicions about New York’s leadership: that for all its talk about racial, economic and environmental justice, it has no interest in giving working New Yorkers a chance to live in affluent neighborhoods.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rezonings were mired in a rough patch even before the pandemic led him to freeze the lengthy review process they require. Plans for Bushwick and the South Bronx were stopped by the local City Council members — Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Salamanca, respectively — and Judge Verna Saunders ruled against its Inwood rezoning in December for not adequately examining the potential socioeconomic fallout. The city is appealing.
Gowanus was one of the few large rezonings on track to happen in de Blasio’s final term, but the pandemic complicated those plans. Neither de Blasio nor local Council member Brad Lander can seek re-election next year, and Lander told City Limits in May that if the city does not move forward in the next few months, “that means this will not happen.”
Open New York is urging its members and others to write to Lander, City Hall, Brooklyn Community Board 6, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, telling them to keep pushing for the rezoning and prevent it from falling apart.
“Gowanus offers our city the opportunity to build thousands of units of affordable housing, promote equity and integration, and make critical investments in environmental resiliency,” the group’s sample letter reads. “After years of planning, hundreds of hours of community meetings, and input from thousands of residents, allowing the Gowanus process to fall apart now would be a tragic mistake.”
The sample letter also calls attempts to use the pandemic to halt the rezoning “cravenly opportunistic.”
“There is no reason why the pandemic should prevent the city from completing the process to rezone Gowanus before this administration ends,” it reads.
And while the letter acknowledges the rezoning must deal with questions about affordable housing and environmental investments, it says the city cannot address these issues if it lets the pandemic derail the process.
Michael Racioppo, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 6, said he received 101 letters from the campaign in less than 24 hours.
Lander applauded community members for speaking up.
“If we get it right, the Gowanus neighborhood rezoning can offer us an opportunity to strengthen our city’s resilience, take steps toward racial justice, support economic recovery, and lay a foundation for the future,” he said in a statement. “So I hope we will move forward to re-start the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning process with robust community engagement, with openness to modification, and with a strong commitment to equity and sustainability.”
Department of City Planning spokesman Joe Marvilli said in a statement that the coronavirus has made creating “a healthier and more inclusive Gowanus” even more imperative.
“The proposal will address equity and health issues brought into sharp relief by the pandemic and respond to the urgent need to produce affordable housing, more local jobs, and better open spaces while improving health outcomes and resiliency to create a more vibrant future for this neighborhood,” he said.
Foes of the rezoning have argued that it would increase the local threat of Covid-19 by increasing population density, although infection rates have been linked to crowded apartments and workplaces, not taller buildings.
Open New York member Alec Schierenbeck said people trying to use the pandemic to stop the rezoning were a “vocal minority,” and the group’s campaign aims to ensure rezoning supporters are heard from as well.
“The loudest voices are sometime the people who don’t want to build housing, and sometimes they’re the only voices that cut through,” he said, “so we want to make sure that the broader set of New Yorkers that want to be a part of solving our affordable housing crisis and combating residential segregation are also at the table.”