(Originally published at CityLimits.org)
A recent opinion piece co-authored by Council Member Brad Lander in City Limits entitled “How the Gowanus Rezoning Could Push NYC Forward on Racial Equity” attempted to hold up this de Blasio-led rezoning proposal as an answer to systemic racism. Unfortunately, this planned rezoning is part of the all-too-familiar de Blasio approach of targeting working class neighborhoods, industrial hubs, and communities of color for luxury condo development (See: Inwood, East Harlem, East New York). The arguments put forward by Lander and his co-authors Michelle de la Uz and Barika Williams mislead and distract from current racial and environmental justice issues in Gowanus.
Conceived well before the onset of COVID-19, the proposed Gowanus rezoning proposal plans to bring 20,000 new residents into a FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area that experiences flooding on a regular basis, including during Hurricane Sandy. Although Brad Lander has represented much of Gowanus for 11 years, he has failed to get the City to enact any significant flood mitigation or the federally-mandated plan to stop the City from dumping 363 million gallons of raw sewage into the Gowanus Canal every year. While Lander attempts to present this rezoning in terms of racial equity, he has refused to even take a position on the City’s latest attempts to delay fixing the Gowanus watershed’s sewage problem until the year 2032. How can it be equitable or just to allow more New Yorkers, including some of the most historically-disenfranchised citizens, to suffer the health consequences of living next to an open sewer that floods?
The data presented in the op-ed about the racial demographics and the median income of Gowanus, which Lander frames as a “wealthy, white” neighborhood, are not from Gowanus. Instead, they are actually demographics for all of Community Board 6, a much larger area that includes affluent Cobble Hill and Park Slope. As their names suggest, those neighborhoods sit atop hillsides. But down in the drainage basin known as Gowanus, this low-lying part of the district has actually been designated a distressed low income “economic opportunity zone,” with the most densely populated areas less than 35% white and with a median household income of less than $50,000—a stark contrast to the figures cited in Lander’s op-ed even though the data source is the same (American Community Survey 2018 5-Year Estimates).
Gowanus has also suffered from “planner’s blight” because the specter of a rezone has been looming for more than a decade. The demographics have changed in part because low income residents were squeezed out as real estate speculators sensed another de Blasio luxury wave coming. Even with that displacement, City Comptroller and mayoral hopeful Scott Stringer identifies the area around the Gowanus Canal as “home mostly to working-class people of color” in a September 23, 2020 letter decrying the fact that “the area has been subject to decades of environmental abuse and neglect.”
While Council Member Lander co-sponsored pending legislation by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams requiring a racial impact study for any city-led rezoning, Lander has not called for such a study when it comes to Gowanus. In fact, Lander has ignored a call by leading community organizations and his constituents to require such a study, and the rezone map actually excludes 10,000 residents in Gowanus NYCHA communities. The proposal fails to examine the impacts of the rezone on NYCHA residents or require any benefits in terms of desperately needed infrastructure investment or quality jobs.
Perhaps the most tragically misguided aspect of this proposal is the affordable housing complex and school that Lander and his private development partners want to construct on a site called Public Place, which environmental experts have identified as the most polluted site in Gowanus. With cancer-causing coal tar running over 100 feet deep into the soil, the proposed building site is not being fully remediated. In fact, the entities responsible for this toxic waste just downgraded their containment plan in August without any public comment from Mr. Lander. The proposed building site is located right next to the Gowanus Canal, where water rife with bacterial and chemical contaminants will be a perpetual flood risk. Placing so-called affordable housing here is not environmentally just or safe.
The winners of the Gowanus rezone will be, as usual, private developers, who stand to receive multiple tax breaks and credits while foisting added impacts and costs on the neighborhood. The op-ed failed to mention the immense give-away of tax dollars and incentives being granted to developers, such as state brownfields credits and tax abatements, that will extend decades into the future. Real estate interests snapped up industrial sites in a land rush as soon as city officials indicated a rezoning might happen, pushing out local businesses that have been in the area for generations. Perhaps Lander’s silence on this part of the plan is tied to the tens of thousands of dollars he received as campaign contributions in 2017 from real estate developerswhen this rezone plan was being conceived.
As New York City faces historic levels of apartment vacancy and a dizzying drop in tax revenue, we need political leaders with courage to chart a new course for a post-de Blasio era. Building more luxury condo high rises is not a vision of an equitable or viable future. And wrapping the proposed Gowanus Rezoning in misleading data and hollow rhetoric won’t change the simple fact that this plan is completely out of step with our current COVID-19 reality from the economics on down. We ask our fellow New Yorkers to join us in demanding a better plan for Gowanus, and all of New York City, that truly meets the current moment.
Voice of Gowanus, a community group of concerned citizens and local activists whose founding members helped secure the EPA Superfund remediation for the Gowanus Canal, and continues the fight for social & environmental justice.