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NYCHA concerns dominate heated Gowanus rezoning meeting

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“Fix our homes before you rezone. We said this for the last two years,” said one public housing tenant

NYCHA’s Wyckoff Gardens houses abuts a stretch of Gowanus the city aims to rezone.
New York City Housing Authoirty

Activists and city officials clashed at a fiery public meeting on the de Blasio administration’s proposal to rezone Gowanus, demanding the city address crumbling conditions at nearby public housing before pressing on with a plan that will reshape the industrial neighborhood with a boom of new apartments.

Some 30 members of the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice—made up in part by local public housing and rent stabilized tenants—commandeered a swath of Wednesday’s meeting held at P.S. 32 where locals were expected to learn the future of their community by perusing posters on the walls. In lieu of a formal presentation from the city, activists set up their own impromptu hearing with dozens of folding chairs and shouted demands into a microphone.

“Fix our homes before you rezone. We said this for the last two years,” Karen Blondel, a resident of the Red Hook Houses, fumed to the packed session. “When the Mayor talks about preserving and creating affordable housing there is no housing that is more affordable than public housing—fix what you have before you bring new residents in.”

After six years in the making, the city unveiled a proposal to rezone Gowanus in January that would pave the way for soaring new developments on several dozen blocks around the polluted Gowanus Canal—with structures rising as high as 30 stories along the banks of the waterway and up to 17 stories on part of Fourth Avenue. A key mission of the rezoning is to revitalize the low-rise, industrial neighborhood into a hotbed of development by ramping up density and encouraging mixed-use projects between Fourth Avenue and Smith Street.

Under the plan, the city would mandate that residential developers abide by the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing law that’d make 20 to 30 percent of a given project’s units be below market rate.

But those who live in the area’s New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complexes—namely the Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Gardens, and the Red Hook Houses—say if the city is so keen on revitalizing the neighborhood it must first commit dollars to improving conditions at the beleaguered buildings.

“The heat is always a problem in the winter,” said Jennifer Jeffries, 42, who lives in the Gowanus houses with her family. “I’ve had to bundle up my son in coats and scarves to make sure he doesn’t get frost bite in his own damn home. Do you know how demoralizing that is? If [the city] wants to help the neighborhood then help us.”

After several minutes of chants and prodding, representatives with the City’s Department of Planning (DCP) acquiesced to the crowd and acknowledged residents’ concerns.

“We want to stress that public housing is part of the Gowanus neighborhood plan. It is part of the study area,” Winston Von Engel, the director of DCP’s Brooklyn office said. “NYCHA is very much part and parcel of this community.”

New York City Councilman Brad Lander, whose district encompasses a large portion of the neighborhood’s planned rezoning, agreed with protestors that the city must do more to address public housing conditions as part of the proposal.

“It should not be the case that wonderful, new affordable housing is created—at whatever range of incomes—and meanwhile the low income folks that live here now continue to live in crappy conditions,” Lander told Curbed Wednesday. “That is not acceptable.”

Lander, who feels “pretty excited” about the new below-market-rate units the proposal would bring, says there are three key components related to the rezoning that require additional action: securing more resources for the existing public housing developments, attending to the area’s Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone—which is not included in the rezoning—to improve job creation in the enclave, and increase resiliency and sustainability measures for the neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of good stuff in here,” said Lander. “But any time we do anything right now we should be pushing our selves to go further than we think we can.”

Activists say the city hasn’t delivered on a promise to create an “eco district” to promote sustainable development in the neighborhood, but city planners at Wednesday’s meeting said those features are integrated into the rezoning.

Anxieties about the neighborhood’s resiliency and conserving its mixed-use character, also came with concerns about preserving architectural gems in the community. Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition launched a website with fifteen sites and small districts in Gowanus that the group says warrants protections by the city.

“Landmarking has been left as something of an afterthought in places like East Harlem, Inwood, and East New York when it needs to happen prior to the major changes that come with city-led rezoning,” said Brad Vogel, a member of the coalition and board member of the Gowanus Dredgers. “We hope the city will take a better course here in Gowanus.”

Locals will have a chance to weigh in on the scheme at two meetings in the near future: a presentation to Community Board 6’s Land Use Committee on February 28 and a meeting with the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, which has yet to be scheduled.