The dirtiest word at a New York City community meeting might be “rezoning.”
That’s especially true even when the stated premise of the meeting is actually “sustainability” and “resiliency,” as was the case last Thursday, when city representatives paid a visit to a gym at Wyckoff Gardens in Gowanus.
Gowanus certainly needs resiliency: floods from the canal during Superstorm Sandy, for example, shut down some NYCHA properties. But some attendees complained that their other concerns weren’t being heard, and some questioned whether the city’s purpose in the neighborhood was simply a land-use rezone.
A state assemblywoman was briefly jeered as she tried to speak. Area City Council members leaned against a wall preparing for the end, when they’d placate and commiserate with their constituents. Residents complained that if this was all they were getting in terms of “community engagement,” then it was a pretty poor experience.
At its core, the meeting in Brooklyn was about how NYC neighborhoods change over time, and who has a say in those changes. Mayor Bill de Blasio put himself in the middle of those discussions with his focus on rezoning and affordable housing. The often negative reaction to that fight could be the key issue in his reelection campaign next year.
Fear of change
Rezoning was not explicitly on the menu in Gowanus on Thursday and it is unlikely to be for some time. But those residents who worry about rezones and an onslaught of development aren’t conspiracy theorists.
Gowanus has long been primed for a rezone and is currently at the beginning of a Department of City Planning “PLACES” study, meant to develop a framework for the neighborhood’s future through a collaborative process.
Most of the PLACES studies grew out of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2014 “Housing New York” plan, in which he pointed to neighborhoods like East New York, East Harlem, Long Island City and the Bay Street corridor in Staten Island as locations for “affordable housing and community development opportunities.”
Those neighborhoods were case studies for how the mayor aimed to build affordable housing. Via legislation that he pushed through the City Council, developers building in newly rezoned areas would need to include affordable housing units in exchange for building bigger.
Community boards, residents and advocates across the city took issue with this plan — rezones and big buildings being potentially jammed down their throats.
The test case was East New York, the first large area where the rezone rules would take effect. Compromises were eventually reached via the principles that are supposed to power the PLACES studies: neighborhoods would get something in exchange for the rezones. The city would incorporate some resident demands into the plan.
The plan was enacted six months ago. One of those amenities, a career training center, opened this week. As other neighborhoods come up for large rezones, the mayor is counting on give and take like this to quiet dissent, and the community engagement approach to convince residents that their input was heard.
Will the mayor’s plan work?
The legislative fight to pass the mayor’s citywide rezoning laws left a bad taste in some people’s mouths, particularly in far-flung neighborhoods where potential rezones looked like unwanted change.
A NY1/Baruch College poll released this week found that de Blasio has a 51 percent approval rating, but only 43 percent of those polled support his reelection bid. De Blasio has been dogged by federal and state investigations into campaign fundraising activities: polls haven’t necessarily reflected much concern about that, but there appeared to be much more pushback on the local level to his rezoning push, which was rejected by community board after community board.
Dan Levitan, a spokesman for de Blasio’s campaign, cited affordable housing creation as one way the mayor is “fighting to lift up every neighborhood and every community.”
The engagement process touted during the PLACES studies is one way to make those neighborhoods and communities feel like they are involved. The trickier piece of the equation comes when the engagement ends and plans start falling into place.
In East Harlem, for example, some residents feel they are getting a raw deal despite some outreach from multiple sections of city government. Their anger tends to center on de Blasio.
Other PLACES studies are in their infancy — around Jerome Avenue and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, and Long Island City in Queens. Gowanus is a little farther along.
The outcome of those conversations will shape those neighborhoods. And their tenor could be an early indicator for 2017.