This article was published in partnership with THE CITY.
On Tuesday, a key City Council committee approved a last-minute change to a proposed rezoning of a block in Gowanus, Brooklyn, that will slash new buildings’ maximum size to half of the original proposal, at the request of local Councilmember Shahana Hanif.
The modified rezoning in the historically industry-heavy area will likely produce dozens fewer units, and fewer affordable units, than the initial plan approved by the local community board.
In contrast to other recent high-profile battles over new housing in progressive councilmembers’ districts, Hanif, the co-chair of the council’s Progressive Caucus, sought a modification not to push for more affordable housing but to limit the number of new units.
The original proposal from the Angelina Gatto Trust, which owns a large property in the rezoning area on Ninth Street currently being used as a parking lot, included two buildings containing a combined 85 units, 22 of which would have been permanently affordable under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. The proposal wasn’t a binding commitment, and the developer could have chosen to build fewer units, Hanif’s office noted.
The shrunken proposal will cap buildings in the zone at 55 feet and five stories, down from 95 feet and nine stories. The two lots where the Gatto Trust proposed buildings are now likely to produce as few as 25 units and seven affordable units, according to an estimate by the Department of City Planning.
They could also produce no affordable units at all. Under the lower height limits, the buildings are more likely to end up below the size threshold at which city zoning rules require developers to build affordable units.
A lawyer for the Gatto Trust, Paul Proulx, said the developers are grateful that Hanif agreed to the rezoning, even in reduced form. He confirmed that the smaller development “will move forward” but declined to say whether it will include affordable units.
In a statement, Hanif alluded to anti-development residents’ concerns about bringing more luxury housing into the area and said the modified plan balances a wide variety of community interests, including those of local businesses.
“I deeply respect and support the push from many in our community to increase affordable housing — particularly deeply affordable housing — in our district,” she said. “I also recognize the concerns from the industrial business community about continued erosion of manufacturing space without industrial zoning protections and investments in the [industrial business zone].”
A Last-Minute Change
The modified plan came as a surprise to pro-development advocates when it was unveiled on Monday. The original proposal had been given a stamp of approval by Brooklyn Community Board 6, which voted 31–6 in favor of the project in June.
After that vote, some local residents, as well as business owners under the banner Gowanus Alliance, mobilized against the proposal, arguing it would displace locals, threaten local businesses, and risk street flooding and overloaded sewers.
In July, Borough President Antonio Reynoso’s office recommended a compromise in which the parking lot owned by the Gatto Trust would be rezoned to allow a nine-story building, but the rest of the rezoning area would be capped at five stories. Reynoso’s recommendation noted a “record amount of written testimony in opposition” to the rezoning, citing 29 written comments from local residents.
Kathryn Krase, a member of the Eight Street Block Association, and other community members were opposed to Reynoso’s proposed compromise, objecting to a nine-story building on a block that currently doesn’t have anything above four stories tall. “It’s a lot of height,” Krase said. “It would really be so out of character.”
In the modification that she proposed this week, Hanif went further than Reynoso’s compromise, capping the entire rezoning at five stories, including the Gatto lot. The City Council’s Land Use Committee unanimously approved the modified rezoning on Tuesday, and the plan is expected to be approved on Thursday upon a vote from the full council, which usually practices “member deference” giving the local representative final say.
Some neighborhood residents applauded Hanif’s stance. “Both the residential community members as well as the business community, represented through the Gowanus Alliance, are completely in support of the work that the Council member did to get this modification, which we believe completely meets our concerns,” Krase said.
Krase argued that residents could not have been sure that the larger project would actually result in affordable units, and argued that the modification would protect rent-stabilized tenants who are currently renting “considerably below-market for the area” and could face pressure in the future from landlords seeking to replace them. The area covered by the rezoning contains two buildings with seven rent-stabilized units, according to city records and the JustFix database, but the construction envisioned by the original plan would have taken place on separate, non-residential lots.
Paul Basile, president of Gowanus Alliance, said that the reduced rezoning is better for local businesses. “When you get above five stories we believe that quality-of-life issues are hard to overcome. We have businesses that get deliveries all hours of the night. They’re loud, they’re noisy,” he said. “New residents don’t want noise, they don’t want businesses.”
“There are better ways to solve the affordability crisis than building your way out of it,” Basile added.
In 2021, Basile secured a zoning modification from the city to allow as much as nine stories of residential and commercial development on a lot that he controls in the Gowanus industrial zone. The lot was previously reserved for manufacturing uses only.
Housing advocates panned the changes, pointing out that Hanif’s district already lags far behind the rest of the city in supplying affordable housing.
“Going from 13 affordable units to three, it’s just a huge missed opportunity,” said Leila Borzog, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee to the City Planning Commission and a former city housing official, at a City Planning Commission meeting on Monday. “We need to try to generate more affordable units on private land.”
Logan Phares, political director of the pro-development group Open New York, commented after the council vote: “This backroom deal makes it extremely unlikely that any affordable housing will be built.”
The council district, which was previously represented in the council by now-city Comptroller Brad Lander, produced just 253 affordable units from 2014 to 2021, according to the industry group New York Housing Conference — one-fifth as many as the citywide average of 1,227 per district. Its median income, meanwhile, is double the citywide average.
“Given the high land costs, zoning applications that will trigger Mandatory Inclusionary Housing are the way to maximize new affordable housing opportunities in this amenity-rich neighborhood,” said New York Housing Conference executive director Rachel Fee.
City of Yes?
Under Mayor Eric Adams, whose administration has championed an unabashedly pro-development agenda, fights over rezoning have grown increasingly contentious across the city.
Last month, in Throggs Neck in the Bronx, Councilmember Majorie Velázquez switched sides and backed a redevelopment proposal on Bruckner Boulevard, greenlighting the construction of hundreds of new apartments there.
Velázquez had repeatedly promised residents that she would remain opposed to the project, but eventually came out in support of it, a shift which was seen as a major win for the Adams administration and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams.
Currently in Astoria, Queens, Councilmember Julie Won and allied community activists are resisting “Innovation QNS,” a massive, $2 billion development that would bring 2,845 new apartments to the area, citing concerns about the area’s rapid gentrification and the need for a greater percentage of affordable units. Over 1,000 of those apartments would be classified as affordable for the area.
The clashes come as New York City struggles with rents that are rising faster than in any other major American city, according to a recent analysis by Lander.
“When New York City’s housing market matches this slow pace of housing creation and longstanding low vacancy rates with rapid short-term increases in demand for rental housing … [it leads] to higher rent burdens, more evictions, and homelessness,” Lander noted.
This story has been updated with additional information about a rezoning obtained by Paul Basile in 2021.