Factory reset: Gowanus rezoning will kill blue-collar business, say industrialists

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Is this the end of gritty Gowanus?

The city is considering rezoning the entire neighborhood for more residential development, and if it goes ahead, local business boosters predict the changes will be the death of the area’s blue-collar businesses, as they can’t afford to compete with luxury housing tycoons.

“There is huge money to be made by developers who want to come in to an area zoned for manufacturing, gobble up whatever they can, and lobbying for rezoning so they have a property that has quadrupled in value,” said Paul Basile, who is president of business group the Gowanus Alliance and owns several commercial properties throughout Gowanus. “As a commercial manufacturing property owner, I can tell you that the return on investment for a manufacturing property is not that great, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it work.”

The Department of City Planning announced on Monday that it is launching one of its “Places” studies this fall to look at rezoning the neighborhood as part of Mayor DeBlasio’s effort to create more so-called “affordable” housing around the city.

It was the same study the city deployed before okaying a large-scale rezoning of East New York, despite strong opposition from local residents and pols.

Currently, land in Gowanus is largely zoned for light industrial use and is home to many manufacturing businesses and artists.

But that — and the big stinky waterway running through the center of the ’hood — hasn’t prevented area property prices from soaring in recent years and enticing new residential development, such as the 700-unit Lightstone complex next to the canal.

The Lightstone building, which partially opened earlier this year, required a rezoning that many neighbors fought — arguing it would over-tax local schools, subways, and sewers — though it eventually won the support of the local community board and then-Councilman Bill DeBlasio, thanks in part to the inclusion of below-market-rate housing.

Community leaders say Lightstone is proof that development is going to occur in Gowanus even without a large-scale rezoning, and at least this way the city and community can plan for infrastructure such as parks and schools that the area will need to accommodate newcomers.

“Even if we don’t get rezoning, if we see real-estate prices rising, we’re going to see development without any concentrated infrastructure improvements in the area,” said Andrea Parker, executive director of environmental group Gowanus Canal Conservancy.

But Basile says he is worried the city will seize land from local businesses via eminent domain in order to clear space for those amenities.

“We are looking at a dark tunnel, because any residential development is going to need a bit of support,” he said. “We’re talking about schools, parks, open spaces — and where are they going to find that? Is it going to be eminent domain at every turn? There are a lot of things that concern us.”

Zoning changes are far from an inevitability, says Councilman Brad Lander (D–Gowanus), who led his own series of community town halls on rezoning the neighborhood in 2014, and ultimately released a list of recommendations called Bridging Gowanus.

The city previously did one of these studies in Queens that resulted in no significant zoning changes, he pointed out, which citizens should take as a sign that officials really do care what they have to say.

“The [study] in West Flushing, there was not a sort of meeting of the minds between community residents and elected officials, and the city, so they put the pencils down,” said Lander. “I think that’s good evidence that this is a real opportunity to engage and no outcomes have been predetermined.”

Lander is organizing a series of community meetings where people can learn about the Bridging Gowanus recommendations ahead of the study, starting Aug. 9 at the Bell House.

Bridging Gowanus meeting at the Bell House (149 Seventh St. at Second Avenue in Gowanus, www.bridginggowanus.org), Aug. 9 at 5–8 pm. Must be 21 or over.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.