Rezoning Gowanus, de Blasio’s shot at redemption, is no sure thing

Mayor’s management, not NIMBY, is greatest threat to ambitious plan

City Council member Brad Lander and Mayor Bill de Blasio (Getty; iStock)
City Council member Brad Lander and Mayor Bill de Blasio (Getty; iStock)

Local opponents can’t stop the city’s next big rezoning — but Mayor Bill de Blasio could.

This time, Gowanus is the battleground. But the fight differs in crucial ways from the one the mayor let die in nearby Sunset Park.

Most notably, the City Council member who represents Gowanus, Brad Lander, is willing to approve a rezoning over the objections of locals, where Sunset Park’s Carlos Menchaca was not. Still, Lander needs action from the mayor, who did not lift a finger for Industry City as locals beat its rezoning plan into submission last week.

A transitioning neighborhood saddled by zoning for industrial uses, Gowanus is short on amenities but long on potential. It sits between pricey Park Slope and Carroll Gardens; a subway line runs under Fourth Avenue at its Park Slope border; and a plan to clean up the 1.8-mile canal, a federally designated Superfund site, is underway.

When insiders complain that de Blasio is distracted, indecisive or unmotivated, this is the kind of thing they are talking about.

In the wake of Industry City’s defeat, real estate interests are watching Gowanus intently. They know rezoning the underdeveloped area is not assured even though de Blasio likes the idea. The mayor also favored the Industry City proposal, as indicated by its full-throated backing by his planning czar, Marisa Lago, and the City Planning Commission, most of whose members are de Blasio appointees.

Industry City’s unraveling was the kind of thing that happens when a mayor lacks political capital — as de Blasio has since the spring when he outraged his political base and staff by defending the NYPD’s handling of George Floyd protests. His lack of interest in real estate’s priorities was another factor: “I didn’t get involved [in Industry City] because it was a private-sector company coming forward,” he said during a radio interview Friday.

In some ways, rezoning has become just a dirty word
u2014 Brad Lander, City Council member

De Blasio-backed rezonings previously failed in Bushwick and the South Bronx, killed by local City Council members without the mayor so much as calling them out. And in Soho, Comptroller Scott Stringer, by virtue of a single tweet favoring rezoning, has been more active than de Blasio, whose planning department wants to move forward with a plan, according to a source close to the agency.

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“In some ways, rezoning has become just a dirty word,” Lander said in an interview. “There’s a range of people who are suspicious of the idea of a rezoning, either because they fear displacing impacts … or they are skeptical of private-sector growth and development; or they don’t like change.”

Usually, when both the mayor and local Council member favor rezoning, a plan sails through the approval process. But among other complications for Gowanus, Lander insists that major upgrades to two local NYCHA projects — the Gowanus and Wyckoff houses — be included in the rezoning.

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“That is the last significant sticking point,” Lander said. “It would be morally unacceptable to build this new neighborhood right around the housing developments … but leave almost all the low-income housing in unacceptable, dilapidated condition.”

Lander does not think that should be hard or time-consuming for a mayor who favors rezoning and fixing public housing. The fact that his request remains unresolved after about a year suggests otherwise.

Indeed, the entire process has been slow. Lander said he initiated community consensus-building for a rezoning in 2013 and brought a framework to the mayor in 2014 or 2015, only to wait about two years for a response. Now concern is building that rezoning will not get done before the mayor and Lander leave office in 15 months. When industry insiders complain that de Blasio is distracted, indecisive or unmotivated, this is the kind of thing they are talking about.

Put on the spot during a press conference last week, de Blasio insisted, “The Gowanus rezoning in Brooklyn is moving forward.” He added, “We are going to push hard to get good development that benefits communities.”

Still, the mayor has yet to choose from “a wide range of ideas” Lander said he offered for funding the NYCHA improvements. De Blasio could simply allocate tens of millions of dollars, but Covid has sabotaged city revenues. He could utilize a proposed NYCHA preservation trust.

Or he could raise funds for the Gowanus and Wyckoff houses by selling development rights in the rezoned area, a prospect that would appeal to the industry if the price were right. Before Covid, at least, the housing market there was strong: A two-bedroom apartment in a Lightstone Group building overlooking the polluted Gowanus Canal rented in January for $6,471 a month.

The mayor also needs to forge an agreement for accessibility upgrades at the Union Street subway station paid for by Avery Hall Investments, which plans to build as many as 200 apartments above it at 204 Fourth Avenue. The developer is willing to make a deal, which would involve the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And the de Blasio administration is eyeing a more complicated citywide formula for transit improvements. That could delay matters further.

The city’s glacial pace is a concern for the industry, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Gowanus development sites in the past few years. On the same day last week that the mayor claimed progress was being made, the Brooklyn Paper reported that a $1.3 billion city project to stop raw sewage from being released into the canal will not be completed for another 12 years — a timeline the de Blasio administration considers “aggressive.”

We are going to push hard to get good development that benefits communities
u2014 Mayor Bill de Blasio

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said the agency “fully intends to complete the public review process for the Gowanus [rezoning] within this administration.”

But seven years into the effort, time is running out. More than half a dozen city and state agencies still must get on the same page. The public review process, which ultimately requires approval from Lander and de Blasio, takes seven months — and the mayor does not want to start the clock until they come to terms. Lander also wants a public engagement effort early next year to precede the review.

“We are waiting for the administration to agree to that process,” he said, in what has become a familiar refrain.