Reshaping Brooklyn: The Gowanus Rezoning

6 min read

Experts size up the impact on New York City’s most populous borough.

gowanus canal
The Gowanus Canal and a view of Downtown Brooklyn. Image by demerzel21/

Late last year, the New York City Council approved the Gowanus Neighborhood Plan, the largest rezoning falling under former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. The Gowanus rezoning is set to pave the way for mixed-use development within an 82-block stretch in the industrial neighborhood.

Some 8,200 new apartments are projected in the area by 2035, with an estimated 3,000 expected to be permanently affordable under the city’s mandatory inclusionary program. Additionally, the upzoning is set to bring 18,000 residents and 3,100 new jobs to the neighborhood, turning a heavily industrial area into a thriving place to live, work and play. Roughly 700,000 square feet of office space is slated to come online in the market, Bobby Lawrence, director of investment sales at B6 Real Estate Advisors, told Multi-Housing News.

In the interview below, Lawrence elaborates on the effects the Gowanus rezoning will have on both Brooklyn and the city as a whole. He is joined by Hill West Architects Senior Associate Sean Dawson and Founding Partner David West, who has more than 30 years of experience working with New York’s zoning laws and designed 365 and 363 Bond—two complementary residential buildings that overlook the Gowanus canal.

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How do you see the plan impacting the neighborhood economically, culturally, and real estate-wise?

Bobby Lawrence, Director of Investment Sales, B6 Real Estate Advisors
Bobby Lawrence, Director of Investment Sales, B6 Real Estate Advisors. Image courtesy of B6 Real Estate Advisors

Dawson: The manufacturing area around Gowanus is an underutilized area directly in the heart of southern Brooklyn. This rezoning provides an opportunity to provide much-needed housing in a central location. As manufacturing has become unviable in this neighborhood, unique venues and uses have been able to thrive in the underutilized spaces, giving Gowanus the characteristics that its current residents and Brooklynites have come to love. The most interesting part of this rezoning is the recognition of these creative uses and the attempt to encourage them alongside the new proposed housing.

West: It’s clearly going to lead to a lot of development, which will boost property values, bring new retail and entertainment venues to the area, and so forth. The incentives for community facilities, cultural and other non-residential uses included in the zoning are likely to bring a more diverse mix of development than what might otherwise have been the case.

How does the rezoning address the need for more multifamily development in the neighborhood? 

West: It’s going to open up a large area of underutilized industrial land to residential development for the first time, adding thousands of new units without significant displacement.

Lawrence: Since the rezoning passed, we have seen 14 permits filed, amounting to over 4.5 million square feet of space and over 4,000 new rental apartments.

What major developments are poised to take shape in Gowanus following the rezoning?

Dawson: There seem to be proposals for all the parcels along the canal. Most have filed some work to qualify for the 421-A deadline, so that will set a completion clock and ultimately start construction on all the sites over the next year. As many of the sites have recently changed hands, it will be interesting to see what ultimately gets built on each of the sites.

gowanus green
The Gowanus Green plan. Rendering courtesy of the City of New York

Lawrence: One of the most important developments will be Gowanus Green. Developed by a joint venture between New York City, Hudson Cos. and Jonathan Rose Cos., it’s projected to comprise six residential buildings with approximately 950 units of housing, serving a wide range of incomes.

Another example is 300 Nevins St., a prime site acquired by Tavros Capital and Charney Cos. in January for $102 million. The developers plan to transform the obsolete area into a 505,000-square-foot, two-tower mixed-use destination with 660 apartment units.

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How does the Gowanus rezoning address NYC’s affordability issue?

Lawrence: I believe one of the easiest ways to address NYC’s affordability crisis is to add more supply and the Gowanus rezoning does that.

West: It is a mandatory inclusionary housing zoning district, requiring 25 percent to 30 percent of all new units to be permanently affordable.

What are the challenges this rezoning presents—namely toxic waste sites—and how can these be addressed?

David West, Sean Dawson
(From left to right) David West, Sean Dawson. Images courtesy of Hill West Architects

Lawrence: I am not qualified to speak about the environmental impact of the rezoning, but I do know that this is one of the biggest concerns of the people who oppose the rezoning. In fact, most recently, two local organizations filed a lawsuit against the city claiming the city did not adequately study the environmental consequences of the rezoning.

West: All sites will need to be cleaned up as a prerequisite for development, which will provide a major incentive to address longstanding environmental problems in the area.

Dawson: One of the other critical components to this rezoning is that redevelopment will clean up the sites surrounding the canal. Their current state only exacerbates environmental issues. The canal will take shape and become effective only through new actions of site cleanup, capping and stormwater control.

How will the rezoning affect public spaces?

Lawrence: The rezoning is projected to have 6.4 acres of new open space. The most notable space is the Waterfront Access Plan, which will be transformed to a large public park along the canal.

West: Major acreage of new public waterfront access areas, paid for by the developers, are going to accompany the development along the canal in accordance with design guidelines developed and enforced by city agencies. Approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of all of the land on the blocks flanking the canal is mandated to become public open space, tied to development as it occurs.

What can you tell us about the plan’s impact on rezoning proposals throughout the boroughs going forward?

West: The fact that it was approved after years of community engagement and lengthy negotiations between stakeholders seems like a good omen for future rezonings. The mood has shifted a bit from the local opposition seen with the Industry City proposal, for example.

Lawrence: It seems clear now after the passing of the Soho/Noho and Gowanus rezonings that if you can answer yes to all three questions below, then the likelihood of the rezoning moving forward is high:

  • Is the current zoning considered antiquated given the needs of the city?
  • Is the risk of displacement low for communities located within the rezoning area?
  • Does the rezoning encourage a more inclusive neighborhood?

Any final thoughts?

Lawrence: The biggest factor determining the fate of the rezoning is the expiration of the 421-A program that sunsets in June. Without the tax abatement being renewed or a comparable replacement, the projected 8,200 new apartments will be reduced dramatically as developers need the tax abatement to make developing economically feasible.

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