Loud, but not clear: Gowanus rezoning meeting erupts into shouting match over lack of presentation

Loud, but not clear: Gowanus rezoning meeting erupts into shouting match over lack of presentation
Photo by Julianne Cuba

A long-awaited public meeting about the city’s proposal to rezone a massive chunk of Gowanus devolved into a shouting match, after its hundreds of attendees arrived to find that officials would not present their plan, but instead expected locals to passively learn the future of their neighborhood by staring at posters on the walls.

The lack of a city-led presentation about the scheme — which Gowanusaurs and pols spent the better part of two years crafting — was a slap in the face to locals hoping to hear more from officials after they hosted a similar session following the release of the plan last year.

“We want a real meeting today, we don’t want to just put signs on a poster, we want questions and answers,” said Karen Blondel, a member of community group the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, who lives in a nearby Red Hook public-housing complex. “We’re demanding that the open house format tonight be turned into a real public meeting.”

City planners on Jan. 30 dropped more details about their scheme to rezone swathes of the historically industrial neighborhood in order to pack more residents into bigger buildings there, roughly seven months after revealing a first draft of the plan that Mayor DeBlasio initially floated back in 2016.

And locals on Wednesday expected those officials to lead a presentation about the dramatic changes they’re proposing — which include allowing buildings as high as 30 stories along parts of the fetid Gowanus Canal, and structures as tall as 17 stories along a stretch of Fourth Avenue.

But instead, leaders of the Department of City Planning and other agencies stood behind booths around the packed PS 32 auditorium, forcing folks to stand in line in order to seek out the information they thought would be provided to them, another attendee said.

“I would like to know why this is the format today. The least we could have is a presentation of the draft that we participated in, and I don’t see a lot of things that we requested in this draft,” said Gowanusaur Helena Whitaker.

The frustrations with the format quickly escalated, with Blondel and other members of the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice bursting out into chants of “Gowanus rezoning is incomplete, City Hall take a seat,” and “Before you rezone, fix our homes,” while other attendees meandered around the room nibbling on cheese and crackers.

The group then demanded the city planners answer their questions, including why the rezoning proposal excludes the neighborhood’s crumbling public-housing complexes, whose residents make up a quarter of the community, and why it does not do more to create a so-called eco-district to promote environmentally friendly living in the neighborhood known for its notoriously toxic canal.

“After two years of community engagement in this process, the city of New York continues to exclude any commitment to fix the environmentally unsafe conditions in local public housing, and provide equity and environmental justice to the long-standing residents of Gowanus that currently comprise more than 25 percent of the residents in the neighborhood,” Blondel said.

Two city-planning officials eventually conceded to the locals’ loud demands, addressing the crowd and assuring that Gowanusaurs are part of the overall plan for their neighborhood.

The agency employees said residents will get more opportunities to discuss the scheme at two upcoming meetings, a yet-to-be-scheduled session with the Coalition for Justice, and a presentation of the proposal to Community Board 6’s Land Use Committee on Feb. 28.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Outraged: Gowanus public housing resident Monica Underwood wants to know when the city will focus on repairing and protecting her home.
Photo by Julianne Cuba