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A Tale of Two Brad Landers: An Open Letter to the New York City Council on the Gowanus Rezone

November 22, 2021 By Debbie Stoller and Linda LaViolette
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On Tuesday, November 23, members of the New York City Council will make one of the most important decisions of their term when they vote on the massive Gowanus Rezone—which, at seven times the size of Hudson Yards, is the largest rezoning of the de Blasio administration. The tradition of “member deference” means that many council members are likely to defer or follow the lead of their colleague in whose district the rezoning is located. In Gowanus, that’s Brad Lander.

But for residents of Brooklyn’s District 39—where Lander has been our Council Member for the past 12 years—it can feel as if there are two diametrically opposed Brad Landers, because Lander’s support for the enormous Gowanus Rezone directly contradicts a host of positions he has loudly and publicly proclaimed for years on issues ranging from affordable housing to climate change to racial displacement.

So the real question council members must ponder this week is: Which Brad Lander should they defer to?

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We invite you to read Brad Lander’s own words, and then judge for yourself.

Which Lander on Affordable Housing?

 Lander says he has no faith in the ability of private developers to address the City’s desperate need for affordable housing, stating on his campaign website: “The for-profit, private-sector model for addressing our housing challenges has done too little for those who need it the most and, in too many cases, accelerated gentrification and displacement.” In his policy paper on social housing, Lander writes that the development of new market-rate units by private developers “has done very little to meet the needs of those who need it most, or to bring prices down overall.”

Yet in Gowanus, 97% of the 200-acre rezone is to facilitate for-profit, private-sector developers who will create mostly market rate luxury housing, with a yet-to-be-determined minor percentage of below-market rate units—exactly what Lander himself claims is the wrong approach for creating affordable housing.

Lander has also said that he wants to require all housing on city-owned land to be developed only by non-profit organizations. So is the only city-owned plot of land in Gowanus—which, at 5 acres, makes up less than 3% of the entire rezone—being developed this way? No.  And Lander actually supports the plan to give away this public land to a consortium of developers, three of them private, with one non-profit thrown in (Lander’s own previous employer).

If you agree with Brad Lander that for-profit developers have not created the affordable housing New Yorkers need, then vote NO on the Gowanus Rezone. 

Which Lander to Believe on Developer Giveaways?

Brad Lander claims to be vehemently opposed to New York State’s 421-a program, which allows large-scale developers to avoid paying any property tax for up to 35 years in exchange for including a small percentage of below-market rate units in their projects. He’s called 421-a “an expensive gentrification subsidy,” and argues that it has “spiraled out of control to become the largest tax expenditure in New York State, costing taxpayers more than $19 billion since 1990.” Moreover, he says, the tax dollars forfeited could be used “to fund NYCHA,” to convert hotels into “permanent supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers,” and to make “affordable home ownership possible for working-class families.” In fact, Lander believes “the program should be ended.”

So then why is Lander pushing a rezoning that, with over 60 development sites, will usher an enormous number of developers into 421-a right before it expires? The rezone is estimated to saddle Gowanus with more than 6,500 high-end luxury units and well over 22,000 new residents, but the services they will need—from roads, to sewers, to schools, to transportation—will be paid for by the remaining citizens of NYC (if they are provided at all).

If you agree with Brad Lander that the 421-a program is a failure that enriches private developers at the expense of the public, then vote NO on the Gowanus Rezone.

Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Which Lander to Heed on Climate Change?

Brad Lander has acknowledged publicly that “coastal flooding, torrential rain, and extreme heat are risks that climate change will accelerate across NYC,” and that “Climate change is coming for all of us.” Lander has called for “bolder climate action at every level of government,” and stated that, “One thing we know: planning ahead will save lives.”

We know all about this threat in Gowanus, most of which is situated in FEMA Flood Zone A, and sits in a ditch between upland neighborhoods. It was inundated during Hurricane Sandy and flooded severely again during Hurricane Ida—when flash flooding resulted in numerous sewer back ups into homes and one local resident tragically drowned.

Given Lander’s purported concern about climate change, why is he pushing a rezoning that exacerbates climate-related problems in Gowanus? The City’s deeply flawed Environmental Impact Statement used data from 2008—well before Hurricane Sandy and without any of the most recent data on climate change, flooding, and increased rainfall. The EPA, as well as Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, have demanded that the City redo this flawed analysis and better account for climate change. Lander has ignored them entirely. What impact will the rezone have on sewage and flooding in the neighborhood? Nobody knows. And Lander—despite the City’s failure to meet his “red line” demand of no new sewer overflow pollution from all the rezoned development—does not seem to care.

If you agree with Brad Lander that the city needs to take bold new steps to combat the influence of climate change, then vote NO on the Gowanus Rezone.

Which Lander to Follow on Sustainable “Green” Development?

“As for achieving green neighborhoods, the answer is not wiping out industrial areas and building new emerald cities,” Lander wrote in an op-ed opposing a major Queens rezoning plan. “Rather than focus so much on new construction, let’s invest more in retrofitting current buildings.”

At the time, Lander questioned whether it made sense to “replac[e] all of the city’s manufacturing jobs with luxury condos with green roofs.” So, why is this exactly what Lander’s pushing in Gowanus? The rezone would allow dozens of industrial and residential buildings to be demolished to make way for luxury towers that will cost New York City millions in taxpayer dollars and tax giveaways. And how does Lander argue that this is sustainable? “All new buildings will have rooftop solar, wind, or green roofs,” he boasts.

If you agree with Brad Lander that sustainable development means more than just putting green roofs on luxury towers, then vote NO on the Gowanus Rezone.

Which Lander To Trust on Preventing Racial Displacement From Rezonings?

Brad Lander claims to be vehemently opposed to any rezone that would displace low-income residents and people of color from their own communities. In 2019, he co-sponsored Jumaane Williams’ bill to require a “Racial Impact Study” before any city-led rezone was certified.

Rezonings are one of the primary drivers of gentrification, which leads to displacement,” Williams said when he introduced the bill. The need for such a study was made evident by research demonstrating that prior City-led rezonings had led to massive displacement of Black and Latinx residents. The upzoning of Fourth Avenue in Park Slope resulted in a decrease in 30% of the Latinx population and 20% of the Black population. This, in a rezone where 40% of the newly created housing was “affordable.”

But when it comes to the Gowanus Rezone, Lander saw no need to require a Racial Impact Study in advance of the plan’s certification. He waited until he knew it was too late to stop the rezoning, later paying lip-service by secretly commissioning his own report, funded by a developer. And who did they hand-pick to write the report? Lance Freeman—an urban planner famous for a 2005 publication in which he claimed that gentrification does not lead to displacement. Freeman’s research has since been heavily criticized.

If you believe Brad Lander that the public should know if a rezone will cause racial displacement before government bodies vote, then vote NO on the Gowanus Rezone.

The Tale of Two Brad Landers reveals that the residents of District 39 can’t trust our council member to heed his own ostensible progressive principles in Gowanus. But it should also enlighten the rest of the City Council about how to vote on the Gowanus Rezone: VOTE NO.

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