Gowanus business owners fear extinction from city’s rezoning plan

"If we’re not at the table, we’re going to be on the menu."

June 18, 2019 Scott Enman
The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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Gowanus merchants met with city officials on Tuesday — the second meeting this month — to discuss the challenges they are experiencing, the improvements they would like to see, and, most importantly, their concerns about the city’s proposed rezoning.

The controversial plan, introduced in late March, could bring 20,000 new residents to the area. This influx could potentially alter Gowanus’ Industrial Business Zone — one of 21 manufacturing areas across the five boroughs that receives assistance from the city in the form of tax incentives and business services.

The proposal prioritizes an increase in housing and industrial space and seeks to streamline waterfront access. It has been met with fierce opposition from residents.

Paul Basile, president and founder of the Gowanus Alliance and a longtime neighborhood property and business owner, said that while he was happy the city gave local merchants a platform to speak, whether their needs would be addressed remains to be seen.

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He argued that there would be unintended consequences because of the rezoning, and he hopes the city will recognize Gowanus as a job hub.

“I got more involved because it didn’t seem like we were being looked at in a positive way,” Basile told the Brooklyn Eagle. “More often than not, when you see these rezonings go through, manufacturing and that lesser value purpose gets thrown under the bus.

“It’s become survival instinct: If we’re not at the table, we’re going to be on the menu. So we’re happy that there is a table, and we’re happy that we’re at it at this point.”

He said that if nothing else comes out of the talks, hopefully the city becomes more sensitive to the needs of the manufacturers and businesses.

(At another series of meetings held in spring 2017, business owners expressed similar concerns about the neighborhood’s future land use and zoning.)

Joe Marvilli of the Department of City Planning told the Eagle that the discussions were constructive and that his agency understands the importance of the Gowanus IBZ as a vital employment center. He said the city would seek to reinforce that idea in the rezoning plan and continue to receive feedback throughout the summer.

“As we committed during the development of the Gowanus Neighborhood Plan, DCP will continue working with businesses, local stakeholders and users in the IBZ to analyze their needs with respect to land use, infrastructure, and workforce development, and develop a vision for the IBZ’s future where businesses can grow jobs and thrive,” Marvilli said.

While many of the industrial manufacturing companies that once lined the shores of the Gowanus Canal have closed, downsized or moved — leaving vacant lots in their place — many other businesses in the neighborhood have persevered and even thrived.

The Gowanus Neighborhood Study Framework — released in June 2018 prior to the rezoning plan — notes:

“Today, Gowanus is home to a diverse mix of uses, which contribute to the neighborhood’s character — often where offices and art studios exist side-by-side with metal welders and custom furniture makers. … While manufacturing has declined, the construction and wholesale and trade sectors remain an important base of the local economy.”

The report suggested a few ways of retaining the IBZ, including promoting industrial and commercial uses, limiting residential use and reinforcing the zone as a center for other job-generating uses.

A portion of Gowanus is located within the Southwest Industrial Business Zone. Its border includes Hamilton Avenue to the south, Smith Street and the canal to the west, Third Street to the north and Third Avenue to the east.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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