Will Gowanus be the next botched rezoning?

Mayor, local council member may be gone before vote on neighborhood revamp

Council member Brad Lander and Gowanus (Credit: Lander by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Council member Brad Lander and Gowanus (Credit: Lander by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Determined to avoid the divisive controversies that plague neighborhood rezonings, Brad Lander has spent years trying to build consensus for what Gowanus should become. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who preceded Lander as the area’s City Council member, was on board, directing city planners to add housing to the low-slung former industrial hotbed.

But now, with real estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars hanging in the balance, the two men are running out of time: They must leave their seats next year, and the rezoning process — stalled by the coronavirus pandemic — has a ways to go before it can begin the seven-month public review.

“If we don’t move forward on it at some point in the next few months, it won’t be able to be achieved in this term,” Lander recently told City Limits. “My term ends in a year and a half, and the mayor’s does, too. And so if we don’t move forward in the next couple of months, that means this will not happen.”

Gowanus was shaping up to be the last major rezoning of the de Blasio administration, and if the pandemic ends up torpedoing it, it would mark the latest in a string of zoning setbacks.

South Bronx Council member Rafael Salamanca effectively ended de Blasio’s effort to rezone Southern Boulevard when he announced his opposition to it in January.

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The administration’s effort to rezone 300 blocks of Bushwick also hit a wall that month when local Council member Antonio Reynoso came out against it. Both politicians cited gentrification fears.

And although the mayor did get its Inwood rezoning through the City Council, a state judge annulled it in December, saying the potential socioeconomic consequences had not been examined enough. The city’s appeal could be heard next month.

The Gowanus rezoning was experiencing pushback as well, with residents demanding the city invest more in public housing and expressing concern about bringing 20- and 30-story buildings into the neighborhood. And Lander, whose vote would determine the fate of the rezoning, did not have the luxury of dismissing critics because he is running for city comptroller.

However, it was still widely seen as a fairly safe bet to pass. Lander, who once ran a nonprofit housing builder, sees the rezoning as a way to add affordable apartments and manage the growth of Gowanus in a broadly beneficial way. It would also be an accomplishment to tout on the campaign trail in his citywide race. Developers see a chance to build in a gentrifying area between pricey enclaves Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

Then the coronavirus pandemic brought city life — including zoning reviews — to a near halt. And while some have started advocating to resume the process, known as Ulurp, the administration has been quiet on the matter.

“There’s no update at the moment on the Gowanus Neighborhood Plan,” the Department of City Planning said in a statement. “Per the mayor’s executive order, Ulurp remains suspended. Any next steps for the Gowanus proposal will be shared with the community and on our website.”