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Opinions & Observations: Mandate a Racial Impact Study before rezoning Gowanus

March 12, 2021 Martin Bisi, Michael Holman and Zac Martin
Gowanus Canal
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As a certification date for the massive Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning looms, we call on New York City and our local officials to support, protect and care for the existing BIPOC residents of Gowanus, including residents of NYCHA, by making certain that any development planned for the community is not just about bringing new money into the neighborhood. How can the City ensure that foundational environmental and systemic injustices are addressed before development and rampant population expansion? We know that a comprehensive Racial Impact Study (RIS) would be a crucial tool for equity if it is completed prior to certification of the City’s huge rezoning proposal, as would be required by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ pending legislation.

Michael Holman. Photo by Rob Northway

The Proposed Legislation

Over the past two years, repeated calls from the community for a Racial Impact Study in Gowanus were dismissed by Council Member Brad Lander of District 39 as unnecessary. So, during a recent hearing on Mr. Williams’ City Council bill (Intro 1572-2019), we were initially encouraged when Mr. Lander stated that the Racial Impact Study is “an important tool to advance equity and fair housing” and claimed he “will make sure this gets done for the Gowanus neighborhood rezoning.”

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Unfortunately, upon closer scrutiny, it has become clear that Mr. Lander is pushing for the City to certify the Gowanus rezoning first—locking in much of the scope and scale—and only begin a study on racial displacement after certification, when such a study would have essentially no real impact.

Public Advocate Williams’ legislation emerged from an in-depth analysis published by Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH), a grassroots community organization that advocates for affordable housing, called “Zoning and Racialized Displacement in NYC.” In this landmark report, CUFFH analyzed the 4th Avenue rezoning of Park Slope in 2003 and the waterfront rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in 2005 to understand how these land use decisions affected the diversity of these communities.

CUFFH’s research revealed a number of concerning outcomes:

  • Between 2000 and 2015, there was a decrease of 15,000 Latinx residents in Greenpoint and Williamsburg while total population increased by 20,000
  • Between 2000 and 2013, there was a decrease of 5000 Black and Latinx residents in Park Slope while overall population increased by 6000
  • Over 5 Million square feet of manufacturing and industrial space was lost in Greenpoint and Williamsburg
  • Nearly 2500 rent stabilized units were lost across both areas

As a result of this research, CUFFH proposed requiring that every City-led rezoning include a RIS to project how a land use change would impact a neighborhood’s demographic diversity, including displacement of BIPOC residents, low income residents, and manufacturing capacity.

In May 2019, the Public Advocate adopted CUFFH’s proposal and submitted legislation to codify the RIS requirement into the NYC charter, a welcome and celebrated effort to advance the goal of justice for all residents in NYC land use decisions. Crucially, the Public Advocate’s draft legislation requires that results of a racial impact study be provided to the community board and borough president affected by a rezoning. For an RIS to have any meaningful value, the findings needs to be publicly released prior to the first hearing in the public review process. Otherwise, officials and community members will not be fully informed during the legally mandated public review process known as ULURP (Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure).

Zac Martin. Photo courtesy of Zac Martin

Implications for Gowanus

A Racial Impact Study in Gowanus is essential for the community to determine the impact of such a massive land use decision for all the reasons that CUFFH outlined in its report. For instance, according to the Fifth Avenue Committee’s research, there was a 22% decrease in rent stabilized units in the area from 2007 to 2014 – a greater loss for this district than in any other part of New York City. There are also millions of square feet of industrial and manufacturing space in the area that house small businesses and provide stable working-class employment, such as a recording studio where seminal music in African-American musical history was recorded.


Most importantly, while Gowanus may be sandwiched between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, two neighborhoods with high median income, there are 10,000 NYCHA residents to the immediate north of the proposed rezoning area, and a significant Latinx population in the southern portion. The introduction of thousands of market rate and luxury residences represents a clear risk to vital community services and businesses, including grocery stores, barber shops, restaurants, bodegas, autobody shops, and others, that could very well be priced-out and permanently displaced.

Martin Bisi. Photo by Joan Hacker

Council Members Co-Sponsor Then Bypass RIS

Council Member Brad Lander of District 39 and Council Member Steven Levin of adjacent District 33 co-sponsored Mr. Williams’ Racial Impact Study legislation. But despite repeated calls from community organizations, including Voice of Gowanus and the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, Lander and Levin were conspicuously silent on the question of a RIS for Gowanus throughout 2020.

In January 2021, Lander finally began tweeting ostensible support for an RIS for the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning. But crucially, not for a completed RIS prior to certification. Unless a study is conducted and released before certification by the City, the community might not even see the report until days before the rezoning is finalized, without ever having a chance to weigh the findings. Meanwhile, residents of NYCHA housing complexes that stand immediately adjacent to the rezoning have been left out of the current proposal. After years of promises, NYCHA residents’ needs were going to be addressed as part of any rezoning that Lander approved. That support has not materialized. In addition to NYCHA, what about low-income communities of color beyond public housing in Gowanus, who are also vulnerable to being displaced by the rezoning?


Lander’s tweets raise further questions

When will Public Advocate Jumaane Williams call upon Council Members Lander and Levin to demand a racial impact study be conducted and publicly released prior to certification of the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning? Lander and Levin could choose to withhold their support of the City’s proposal and make this demand a prerequisite.

When will other community groups in the greater Gowanus area and beyond call out Council Members Lander and Levin for their continued unwillingness to address the racial impacts of the rezoning in their own districts?

We call on both council members to demand that the Department of City Planning hold off on certification of the Gowanus rezoning until a racial impact study can be conducted and publicly released. We demand that our elected officials support, protect and care for the needs of current residents before certifying a rezoning that welcomes more development and more residents who may not know they are directly benefiting from displacement.

Martin Bisi is a longtime Gowanus resident, small business owner and member of Voice of Gowanus.

Zac Martin is an activist for and a chaplain to his community. He is also the Executive Director of Trellis, a community development non-profit in Brooklyn, helping communities work better together, and co-founder of Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ).

Michael Holman is a NY-based artist, writer, filmmaker and musician.

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