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Proposal for Taller Buildings in Gowanus Gets Mixed Reaction From Locals

By Leslie Albrecht | November 25, 2014 2:22pm
 Construction at the Lightstone development site along the Gowanus Canal. Locals weighed in Monday night on Bridging Gowanus, a proposal to guide future development in the rapidly changing neighborhod.
Construction at the Lightstone development site along the Gowanus Canal. Locals weighed in Monday night on Bridging Gowanus, a proposal to guide future development in the rapidly changing neighborhod.
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DNAinfo/Nikhita Venugopal

GOWANUS — Locals voiced both praise and skepticism during a public meeting Monday night on Bridging Gowanus, an ambitious proposal to bring high-rise development and infrastructure improvements to the neighborhood. 

Some said the Bridging Gowanus "planning framework" — which elected officials drafted with input from the community — was "impressive" and "exciting," while others worried the proposal would ultimately fall on deaf ears, leaving the neighborhood vulnerable to the whims of developers.

When it's finished in 2015, the framework will be presented to city agencies with the hope of guiding their decisions about Gowanus.

“This is a great plan — utopian,” said longtime resident Carl Teitelbaum during the hourlong public comment session. "It covers everything. [But] you take it to City Planning…and what happens then? What if they cherry pick? What if they say, we'll take this and this and forget about everything else?"

The framework lays out a set of goals, including making flood-fighting infrastructure upgrades, creating affordable housing, protecting the neighborhood's industrial businesses and promoting the arts. It was created after 15 months of public meetings and is meant to put residents in charge of Gowanus' future.

Even onetime critics of the Bridging Gowanus process said Monday that they were impressed with the results. Wyckoff Gardens public housing resident Charlene Nimmons said she was a skeptic at first, but was pleased to see that the framework reflects community concerns.

Joseph Alexiou, who led a protest last summer against Bridging Gowanus, said he was "amazed" that so many community wishes ended up in the framework.

But there was some sharp criticism of the framework's most controversial recommendation: allowing some taller residential buildings in the mostly low-rise industrial neighborhood. Officials say new residential development will boost land values and help pay for sorely needed infrastructure upgrades.

Taller buildings would be allowed "if and only if they genuinely advance the community's goals," elected officials said in a letter unveiling the framework.

Officials say that a majority of people who participated in Bridging Gowanus are open to seeing buildings taller than 10 stories and up to 18 stories.

But some at Monday's meeting challenged that assertion. Longtime neighborhood activist Linda Mariano demanded proof that locals really support high-rise buildings, and asked the audience to raise their hands if they agreed with taller residential development. A dozen or so in the crowd of more than 100 did.

Others worried that the Department of City Planning would "latch on" to the idea that Gowanus residents support 18-story buildings and throw open the door to high-rise luxury condos. Locals noted that when Mayor Bill de Blasio was on the City Council, he supported the controversial 700-unit development now under construction on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.

A resident of Sackett Street said residents were rightly skeptical, given "generation after generation of bait and switch" by developers who failed to deliver on promised public amenities. He asked what elected officials would do to protect the neighborhood's interests.

City Councilman Brad Lander, who spearheaded Bridging Gowanus along with City Councilman Stephen Levin and several other elected officials, said any rezoning to allow residential development would require a City Council vote, and that he and Levin would work to make sure local interests were represented.

"Having done this process, working together with you to build up this set of understandings and values and expectations, if we were to allow a process where what came was the rezoning without the community’s goals…We would have a problem when 2017 came and we had to run for reelection," Lander said.

The public is invited to submit comments on Bridging Gowanus until the end of the year. Comments will be published in early 2015, and a final version of Bridging Gowanus will be presented to city agencies after that.