New vision for Gowanus - Rezoning plan underway

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The city last week detailed a framework for planning along the Gowanus Canal, a mutable vision that could include affordable housing, retail use, and the promotion of industry, in an area where it once dominated.

At a standing room only meeting of Community Board 6's Land Use/Landmarks Committee, held last week, city planners stressed that the plan will help guide potential zoning changes that could reshape the region.

Purnima Kapur, the director of the Department of City Planning's Brooklyn office, recognized the complex set of "diverse views and desires," competing to be heard.

"Our desire is to open a dialogue," she told the crowd, squeezed into St. Mary's Residence on First Street.

"It will not be an easy or short process," Kapur said.

Any zoning changes will spark an exhaustive public review process.

City Planning's Howard Slatkin said the proposed framework, which is broken up into five sub-areas, was informed by existing land use trends.

The highest concentration of existing residential uses was found in sub-area A, which is located east of the canal, with Sackett Street at the northern border, 4th Avenue to the east, and 3rd Street to the south.

In sub-areas A and B, whose western border is Bond Street and eastern boundary is the canal, there is "a potential for housing and mixed use," Slatkin said.

But opportunities for development abound throughout all five areas, Slatkin said.

In sub-area D, the Public Place site, a city owned, mostly vacant piece of contaminated land on Smith Street, is one location where the chance, "to directly address land use" issues is apparent, he said.

A mix of uses there, including affordable housing and ground floor retail or open space, are all being discussed. A state-supervised clean-up of the site, former home to a manufactured gas plant, has yet to commence.

Industrial uses are expected to continue in three of the five sub-areas, including E, bounded by 3rd Avenue and Hamilton Avenue. The area is already designated an Industrial Business Zone, a geographic area where industry is protected and promoted.

Catherine Cammallere-Rota, originally from Red Hook, owns a building in sub-area E, at 3rd Avenue and 9th Street. She hopes it will one day house a restaurant.

She said she favors more commercial development to meet the needs of a burgeoning residential community. Buildings for artists, or something that will "make a difference" in the neighborhood, will be welcomed, she added.

"We have a lot more residents coming to the area. These residents need to shop and eat. Why not improve some of the commercial and limit some of the industry," she wondered.

"What I am trying to do is anchor 3rd Avenue to be as beautiful as Smith Street," she said.

Cammallere-Rota continued, "Industry has not been a good neighbor. Many of them don't employ people from the area. For all the years they have been established, what have they contributed to the area?"

"They haven't even planted a tree," she said.

She said the days of industry being king in Brooklyn are long gone, and planners need to recognize that.

"I'm not anti-industry, but they are all acting like they are getting the boot. What have they done for us?"

The sentiment, is what local industry fears most. More residents in the area could mean more complaints, and more pressure to leave.

Rachael Dubin, the policy and planning manager for the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, an organization that support local industry, said residents should move to a neighborhood with their eyes wide open.

"It's one of the reasons that there are buffers between residential and manufacturing uses, to try to prevent these sorts of conflicts," she said.

Dubin's organization administers the recently formed Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone, a geographical area including parts of Gowanus and Red Hook that protects and promotes industry.

"I think when you move into an industrial area-and 3rd Avenue is a regional truck route-those are issues you need to be aware of," she said.

Dubin said her group is pleased that the city seems to recognize the viability of industrial uses outside of the IBZ, particularly to the northeast of the canal and southwest of the waterway, near the Public Place site, a large tract of land near Smith and 5th streets.

Goals of the plan, Slatkin said, include increasing access to the canal, the introduction of affordable housing, and determining what the "urban design character should be." Addressing the contamination of Public Place and the pollution of the canal are also elements that must be addressed, he said.

Kapur stressed that no development has been planned yet. As the plan moves forward, the city will conduct an environmental impact statement, examining the consequences of any development schemes, she said.

Some expressed skepticism with the plan.

"I just hope City Planning is acting with sincerity and this is not done in order to have an appearance of a process, and that it's not a deal sewn up in back rooms," said Margaret Maugenest, an artist living in Gowanus and member of the group Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG).

She said the priority should be the clean-up of the canal, which remains one of the most polluted bodies of water in the nation.

"This meeting really didn't address that. We aren't really quite at the point of going forward yet because the number one issue is the pollution of the water and the land."

A rush toward development should not necessarily trump neighborhood character.

"Underutilized land is part of the milieu," she said.

She worried that talk of affordable housing might just be a ruse, promulgated with those with a financial stake in its advancement.

"A lot of people talking about affordable housing are developers in our area," she said.

"When I hear affordable housing, I just hear you calling me a sucker," she told the city officials.

Still, in a neighborhood where each year talk of a clean canal begins anew, optimism is eternal.

"Let's really see democracy in action," Maugenest said.

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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