As the de Blasio administration prepares to embark on a controversial rezoning in Gowanus, local residents and an elected official are pressuring City Hall to consider incorporating a plan that would raise funding for the public housing in the neighborhood by allowing the New York City Housing Authority to sell air rights.
A mostly low-rise industrial neighborhood between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, Gowanus is expected to be the next rezoning that could significantly add to the housing stock and fulfill the mayor's affordable housing goals. Under the current proposal, which would target the area between 4th Avenue and Smith Street, the city estimates that 8,200 new apartments could be created by 2035, with roughly 3,000 priced below market rate.
But as with other rezonings in low-income communities, the plan has been met with protests over concerns about gentrification and whether enough attention has been paid to addressing the neighborhood's longstanding environmental needs. On Tuesday, federal officials announced that the clean up of the toxic Gowanus Canal would begin in September. But aside from the canal, residents have argued that any redevelopment should prioritize sustainability as well as the need for open space.
NYCHA tenants have emerged at the center of this debate as Gowanus's poorest residents and the ones that stand to benefit least from a rezoning. Altogether, 4,300 low-income residents live across three public housing complexes, Wyckoff Gardens, Warren Street and Gowanus Houses. Altogether the buildings have approximately $237 million in unfunded capital repairs, according to a report from the Pratt Center, a community planning organization.
"It would not be acceptable to build new affordable housing while leaving existing affordable housing units in dilapidated conditions," said City Council Brad Lander, a Democrat who represents the area.
Issued last month, the Pratt Center's report called on the city to study the possibility of selling NYCHA's air rights to developers as part of the Gowanus rezoning, and to require that funds be invested in the three public housing complexes. Additionally, the report also recommended that the city ensure that the affordable units be "within reach" of what current NYCHA residents can reasonably afford.
NYCHA tenants have embraced the plan. "We cannot allow the artificial separation of public housing from the rezoning process and we cannot allow the construction of luxury developments for the wealthy when thousands of public housing residents are living in substandard conditions," wrote Monica Underwood and Cherry Shiver, two Wyckoff Gardens tenants, in a Daily News Op-ed published Monday.
"This is the real tale of two cities," they added.
In an interview with Gothamist, Lander proposed a plan in which developers would be required to pay for development rights to build out the remaining 10 percent of allowable density. The city has used similar air rights strategies in the past, most notably in the 2017 rezoning of East Midtown, in which certain landowners were allowed to sell air rights and a portion of the revenues was taxed by the city for infrastructure improvements around Grand Central Terminal.
According to the Pratt Report, the City Council has estimated that between $100 million to $200 million could be generated by an air rights plan in Gowanus.
The plan may face resistance from real estate interests. Talk of rezoning beginning in 2009 spurred a land rush that included the arrival of Whole Foods and luxury rentals. It could also prolong a complicated land use process that has already been more than six years in the making. For de Blasio, time is ticking on his remaining two years in office.
City planning officials had been expected to certify the current rezoning plan, which would kick off the public review process, within the next month.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said, "This Administration is committed to reversing decades of disinvestment in NYCHA that affects the residents who call it home. The City is exploring all ideas to address significant concerns related to NYCHA to ensure funding for necessary repairs. We are in active discussions with Council Member Lander to identify a strategy to both address NYCHA needs in Gowanus and ensure the Gowanus Plan improves lives for everyone in the neighborhood."
Lander said he was open to considering other possibilities of investing in NYCHA.
"The bottom line is it needs to get done somehow," he said.