GOWANUS — Hold your horses, Gowanus.
Eager residents came ready for action and answers at Thursday's kickoff of the city's rezoning study of Gowanus, but Planning Department officials said there's no set timeline for the process, and gave polite but vague responses to pointed questions.
"Clearly we want to come to a conclusion and I think the community wants that, but we don't want to set a timeframe, a deadline by which something needs to be done," said Department of City Planning's Brooklyn office director Winston Von Engel.
"There will not be a rezoning until there is a neighborhood plan," Von Engel added. "We are committed to this process of community engagement and of planning together."
About 250 residents braved a rainy night to attend the meeting at P.S. 32, the first public get-together since the city announced that Gowanus is on the list of neighborhoods targeted for rezoning under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing initiative.
Locals — many of whom participated in City Councilman Brad Lander’s Bridging Gowanus process to identify neighborhood priorities — arrived expecting specifics on what the city intends to do in Gowanus, an industrial neighborhood where current zoning prohibits new residential development (except with a variance). Instead they were greeted with posters explaining the zoning process and an overview of the neighborhood’s unique challenges.
A planning official said the city’s experience with the controversial rezoning of East New York had prompted them to take a slower approach in Gowanus.
For some, the pace may have proved too slow.
During a Q&A session, residents quizzed planning officials on how a rezoning would impact housing prices and low-income tenants, how the city will reach out to non-English speakers and NYCHA residents, and what the city’s plans are for storm protection in the area, among other pressing issues.
Officials responded to most of the queries by telling attendees to "participate in the process."
David Briggs, director of Gowanus By Design community group, asked whether a rezoning could include incentives to preserve art spaces. Von Engel didn’t answer directly but said, "This is an open process. You should have your voice heard. There is no pre-done zoning for this area so you should join the discussion about what the zoning should entail."
Dave Powell, a tenant organizer with the nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee, told officials the neighborhood was “still reeling” from the 2003 rezoning of Fourth Avenue, which pushed out low-income tenants and led to the loss of dozens of rent-stabilized units, he said.
"For many members of our community, rezonings are synonymous with displacement," Powell said. "How will you track the potential for displacement in this process and what will you do to mitigate that?"
A Department of Housing Preservation and Development official at the meeting promised to get in touch with Powell about preserving affordable units. In response to Powell’s question about studying the potential for displacement, Von Engel said, "You can certainly bring this up. You can certainly be part of the process and advocate for that."
Displacement is already an issue in Gowanus, where the Latino population has dropped dramatically and hundreds of artists have been pushed out as real estate values have skyrocketed. Changes are sweeping the neighborhood day by day. Just this week a developer filed for permits to convert a 13th Street manufacturing building into offices and retail.
Planners said four goals identified during Lander's Bridging Gowanus — which a vocal few criticized as favoring developers' interests over locals — will guide the city's rezoning study. They are: "preserve and create affordable housing," investments in infrastructure, a thriving manufacturing sector, and "a genuine Gowanus mix of uses."
Planners also said they've identified four distinct areas in Gowanus, each with different "opportunities,” not all of which are zoning related.
The areas are: the two NYCHA complexes north of the canal, where the city wants to connect residents with jobs and services; the booming Fourth Avenue corridor, where the city sees an opportunity for affordable hosing and pedestrian safety improvements; the southern third of the canal, where the city could protect existing industrial uses and prohibit new residential development; and the northern two-thirds of the canal area, where a mix of uses including light industrial, arts and residential could happen.
Lander said Thursday that many “risks and threats” already affect the neighborhood. For example, hotels and self-storage facilities are “eroding” the manufacturing sector, Lander said.
He said his Bridging Gowanus process had been designed to put the community in the driver’s seat in shaping the area’s future, but acknowledged that there will be bumps in the road ahead.
"Inaction is not going to preserve and strengthen and extend the things we want and care about in Gowanus,” Lander said. "Now we're at the point in the process where we start to get down to the block-by-block level. … There are going to be hard questions here and we're going to go through them together because that’s the way to do it."
This isn’t the first time the city has taken a crack at rezoning Gowanus.
A 2007 planning study was abandoned in 2010 when the Gowanus Canal became a Superfund site. Department of City Planning's Gowanus project manager Jonathan Keller said Thursday the city would use Lander’s Bridging Gowanus as a starting point for its new study, not the 2007 effort.
"We aren’t starting from where we left off in 2009 and 2010,” Keller said. “That doesn’t really make sense. … A lot has changed in the hood since then. … We really are taking a fresh look at all this, and that’s why we’re here to talk about process and our approach."
The next public meeting on the city's study of Gowanus will be a session on resiliency on Dec. 8.
SEE THE PLANNING DEPARTMENT'S FULL PRESENTATION BELOW