Lessons from the Gowanus rezoning

At long last, the Gowanus Rezoning is about to be passed. And as the land-use proposal passes the finish line, everyone associated with the measure is already patting themselves on the back.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is calling the rezoning one of his administration’s greatest achievements, Mayor-elect Eric Adams (who only served an advisory role as Borough President) is calling it a model that should be followed for years to come, and Gowanus Councilmember Brad Lander is hamming it up after successfully pushing to include very basic community concerns in the final plan.
To be fair, there are some parts of the Gowanus reasoning that deserve to be celebrated. The plan paves the way for thousands of new housing units while also securing vast amounts of funding for preexisting NYCHA developments, marking the first time a major rezoning has substantially considered and contributed to affordable housing.
However, such praise ignores just how tortuous it was to make the Gowanus rezoning a reality. For starters, none of the measures that are being celebrated now (affordable housing, public space, environmental cleanup) were a part of the initial proposal, necessitating years of community criticism before the plan was anywhere near its final form.
Yes, this process of community feedback prevented the Gowanus rezoning from being a carbon copy of the catastrophically gentrification-generating rezonings that reshaped Downtown Brooklyn and Greenpoint/Williamsburg in 2004 and 2005 respectively. But still, the Gowanus rezoning is not a model for future rezonings, as Mayor-elect Adams touted. Rather, it is yet another reminder that the City can no longer use rezonings as a lazy stand in for actual City planning.
Critical components of rezonings such as affordable housing and green space can not be negotiated on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. This leads to years of political gridlock that can easily amount to empty promises…just ask anyone in Greenpoint still waiting for the waterfront park they were promised 16 years ago.
Instead, these basic questions — affordability chief among them — should be prioritized and addressed through their own legislation. This means changes to the 421-A tax exemption program on both the state and city level, as well as a more sustainable plan for funding and updating NYCHA properties in the long term.
With such matters settled, the City will then be enabled to take a wider look at what neighborhood rezonings make sense instead of chasing a never-ending wave of gentrification as it progresses through the outer boroughs. City officials could finally ask ‘what neighborhoods can support more density?’ rather than asserting that certain neighborhoods need to support a steadily increasing population of transplants. Could super-wealthy neighborhoods like SoHo be rezoned to allow taller construction? Could a rezoning in low-income neighborhoods like Brownsville or Flatbush actually decrease housing prices and increase affordability?
By taking a holistic approach to land-use, these productive questions can finally be asked. If not, we will be left with the same piecemeal rezonings.
Let’s hope our eclectic officials learned the right lessons from the Gowanus rezoning. Otherwise, Eric Adams can expect to oversee just one rezoning during his time as Mayor, mirroring the results of his prolifically ineffective predecessor. Brooklyn is counting on you, Mr. Adams. Let’s hope you were paying attention.

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