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Gowanus Rezoning on The Table Again as City Launches Planning Study

 The Department of City Planning is launching a community engagement process that could lead to a rezoning in the industrial neighborhood.
The Department of City Planning is launching a community engagement process that could lead to a rezoning in the industrial neighborhood.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht; Lower Right: Steve Pisano

GOWANUS — Get ready for your close-up, Gowanus.

The Department of City Planning will launch a study of Gowanus this fall that could eventually lead to a rezoning allowing some residential development in the industrial neighborhood, City Councilman Brad Lander said.

The Planning Dept. has selected Gowanus to undergo its "PLACES" planning process, Lander announced, which the city deployed in East Harlem, East New York, Long Island City and other neighborhoods that Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration targeted for rezoning as part of its affordable housing strategy.

The city's study comes as once-industrial Gowanus, home to the contaminated Gowanus Canal, is experiencing breakneck change. Luxury apartments — the result of a spot rezoning — opened this year on the banks of the toxin-riddled waterway, which will be cleaned up over the next several years. Manufacturing and arts spaces are disappearing as developers snap up property for record-high prices.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that if we don’t do anything, it's going to become a whole bunch of hotels and self-storage facilities with a few entertainment uses thrown in, and that's not the Gowanus people want," Lander told DNAinfo New York in an interview last week.

"Is there risk in planning for growth in a way that includes some residential development? Of course there is. … But I think people believe there's a chance to get it right."

To help support the Planning Department's study of the neighborhood, Lander will resurrect his Bridging Gowanus initiative to build consensus on goals for the fast-changing area.

With a series of public workshops starting Aug. 9 and an online survey, Lander will ask residents to rank the neighborhood priorities they identified during the first round of Bridging Gowanus, which Lander launched in 2013 along with City Councilman Stephen Levin and other elected officials.

Residents who participated in the initial Bridging Gowanus process identified key goals, including strengthening manufacturing and creating jobs, creating affordable housing, preserving the neighborhood's arts community and improving its environmental health.

Discussions then included debates about allowing taller residential buildings in Gowanus. Most participants said they would be open to that type of development, but only if it provided a way to achieve affordable housing, jobs and infrastructure investments, according to an executive summary of the first phase of the Bridging Gowanus project.

In this next round of Bridging Gowanus, residents will rank neighborhood goals in order of importance and get more specific about how to achieve them, Lander said.

"We look forward to building upon the important work undertaken by the community in Bridging Gowanus and thank Councilmembers Lander and Stephen Levin for their leadership in promoting an inclusive and open planning process," said Planning Department Director Carl Weisbrod.

"We are enthusiastic about working with them and the community to create a thriving neighborhood where an appropriate mix of uses supports an economically diverse population, offering cultural and economic opportunities for all," Weisbrod said.

The end result of Bridging Gowanus and the Planning Department's PLACES study will be a "planning and land use framework" that may or may not include a recommendation to rezone the neighborhood, Lander said. In Flushing West, another PLACES neighborhood, the city dropped rezoning plans after locals voiced concerns.

No doubt there will be plenty of opinions in Gowanus too, where some locals were fiercely critical of the first phase of Bridging Gowanus.

Skeptics felt it didn't let residents articulate their own vision for the future of the neighborhood. Instead, some participants felt they were forced to choose from a pre-selected menu of goals that seemed designed to "deliver Gowanus to the developers," one charged.

Recently those criticisms were inflamed again after word leaked that Lander was holding small, private meetings with neighborhood leaders and City Planning staff. Local groups slammed Lander as "enraging, not engaging" the community. Lander said Friday he invited critics of the Bridging Gowanus process to meet with Planning staff recently too, but they declined the offer.

Despite those misgivings, community leaders representing a range of interests — from manufacturing to arts to environmental issues — voiced support for the re-launch of Bridging Gowanus.

"It needs to happen, because right now there's an enormous amount of [real estate] speculation going on, because everyone is assuming there's going to be a rezoning but doesn't know what it's going to include," said Andrea Parker, executive director of the nonprofit Gowanus Canal Conservancy. "If the city doesn't get involved now, I fear we're not going to get the infrastructure investments we need."

She added, "These things aren't easy to do, and it's really difficult to do in a way that makes everyone happy, but I think Lander’s office is doing a great job of at least trying to get an understanding of what everyone wants. It's an incredibly diverse community with so many different opinions, and Bridging Gowanus does a really good job of trying to represent all of those, so I'm optimistic."

Abby Subak, executive director of the nonprofit Arts Gowanus, said she felt "lucky" that officials were willing to "wrestle with these big questions about the future of Gowanus" alongside residents.

"Many of us love [Gowanus] the way it is, and wish it wouldn't change at all, but that is not the way New York City works," Subak said. "Here, we want to engage these questions and proactively create a community that will continue to be a vibrant creative community, even as it evolves."

This isn't the first time the city has mulled major changes in Gowanus. The city drafted a rezoning plan for the area in 2008, but dropped it after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the canal a Superfund site in 2010.

In addition to the Bridging Gowanus online survey, residents are invited to weigh in on the future of the neighborhood at public sessions:

• Open House: Aug. 9, 5 to 8 p.m., The Bell House, 149 7th St. (must be 21 or over)
• Drop-in Hours: Aug. 18-9, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Fifth Avenue Committee, 621 Degraw St.
• Open House: Friday Aug. 19, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Fifth Avenue Committee’s Annual Summer Party, 621 Degraw St.
• Open House: Monday, Aug. 22, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.,Coworkrs Gowanus (68 3rd Street)
• Drop-In Hours: Tuesday Aug. 23  through Friday Aug. 26, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Coworkrs Gowanus, 68 Third St.
• Open House: Sept. 8, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., The Hall of the Gowanus, 543 Union St. (down the alley on Nevins Street) There will also be drop-in hours at The Hall of the Gowanus from Sept. 6 through Sept. 9, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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