Drama on Gowanus: How A Proposed Apartment Building Almost Destroyed Community

A long-time neighbor's proposal to develop his family-owned lot on 9th Street split the tight-knit community, resulting in a tense debate about the future of the area, colliding competing business and personal interests and neighborly loyalty. They worked it out.

Drama on Gowanus: How A Proposed Apartment Building Almost Destroyed Community
The lot Richard Gatto proposed for development, flanked by trucks from Ferrantino Fuel Corporation. Rachel Goldman/Bklyner

Just like his mother before him, Richard Gatto, 71, grew up on an industrial block in Gowanus. Walking through the area where manufacturing is still well and alive with a reporter, Gatto was like a human scrapbook; every commercial building and home was a childhood memory for him.

“The building across the street is where my mom worked at a feather factory” “I helped build the garage here on 8th Street, a hammer fell on my finger; my literal blood is in this garage,” Gatto said. Gowanus is his home, and he considers his neighbors his family.

His proposal to rezone part of the block he grew up on to build a residential building almost tore this “family” apart.

Richard Gatto shows around the neighborhood. Rachel Goldman/Bklyner

Gato wants to develop the lot at 153-157 9th street, around the corner from where he grew up on 8th Street, which his family has owned for 50 years. He envisioned a nine-story, mixed-use building with 48 apartments, of which 13  would be affordable, and a commercial unit on the ground floor. Currently, it is an empty lot used for parking.

This would require rezoning part of the block along 9th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, currently zoned for manufacturing and commercial use, to allow for residential and mixed industrial uses.  

Gatto’s proposal split the tight-knit community, resulting in a tense debate about the future of the area, a collision of competing business and personal interests and neighborly loyalty. At a public hearing of the proposed development, six people spoke for and seven against it.

The mixed-use block on 8th Street between 2nd and 3rd Ave in Gowanus, with residential buildings on the right. Rachel Goldman/Bklyner

One of the leading opponents of the proposed development effort was Kathryn Krase, 47. Krase moved to 8th Street after purchasing her home almost 20 years ago. One reason Krase likes the area is the sense of thoughtfulness and engagement among neighbors.

“We always share vacuums when it floods. A lot of people on the block have been here for a long time. Some people on the block may not be close friends, but there is a shared sense of recognition in the community here,” Krase said.  

One member of the community Krase was close with was Gatto’s mother, Angelina, two doors down until she died.

“I was close friends with Angie. She was so sweet, always talking to neighbors. When I had [my son] Jack, she was like a grandmotherly figure to him and always gave him cookies,” Krase said.

Krase was also friendly with Gatto, who helped her fix issues with the city sewage flooding her house.

Their friendly relations cooled after Krase helped organize her neighbors to oppose Gatto’s original development plan, saying that not only did he not consult the neighbors, a large building like that would make the neighborhood’s sewage problems even worse and could potentially lead to higher rents in the area. Even though the block is zoned for manufacturing, it includes 11 residential buildings - some rentals and others single-family homes that predate the current zoning. Krase and other neighbors were worried that such development would incentivize landlords to scrap the existing buildings on the block.

While Krase was against Gatto’s original rezoning proposal as a resident, business owner Paul Basile’s opposition stemmed from his concerns about the future of the city’s manufacturing districts and the possible displacement of existing businesses that have been operating in the neighborhood for decades.

9th Street in Gowanus. Rachel Goldman/Bklyner

Basile, 56, is the owner of the real estate and construction company Salvatore Basile Inc. that owns several industrial and commercial buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He is also the president and founder of The Gowanus Alliance, an open membership organization with almost 400 subscribed residents and businesses, that was instrumental in developing the Gowanus Industrial Business Zone (IBZ).

The vision for IBZ was created in 2021, in tandem with the 82-block Gowanus Rezoning under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, to guide future development in the “industrial area that includes nearly 300 businesses and 4,000 private jobs”, informed a press release at the time. While Gatto’s proposed rezoning is just outside the IBZ  area, Basile said the proposal is emblematic of a more significant problem with how the city views manufacturing.

“We have not even begun to see the positives or negatives from de Blasio’s rezoning; now we have another one on 9th Street,” Basile said. “I see the city saying it will only affect manufacturing, so it’s ok. He’s [Gatto] one application, they’ll come in drips, and we’ll have to negotiate every one of these. I’m trying to run a business and to have this shadow come; the city shouldn’t put us through that.”

Councilwoman Shahana Hanif (D-39), who represents the area, has been working with all the various stakeholders and the city to negotiate a modified rezoning proposal.

“There is a significant lack of affordability in the city, and it has objectively gotten worse. With every decision Councilwoman makes, every land use decision, she is thinking about affordable housing in her district,” Councilwoman Hanif’s office said.

The lot Richard Gatto proposed for development, flanked by trucks from Ferrantino Fuel Corporation. Rachel Goldman/Bklyner

On Tuesday, the city council subcommittee of Zoning and Franchises voted to approve Gatto’s modified rezoning proposal. With modifications, the block would be rezoned to a residential zone with mixed industrial uses and a more strict limitation on the height of the buildings. Gatto’s building could now be five stories with some 13-23 units, 3-6 of which would be affordable - half of his original plan.

With the City Council vote on the proposed rezoning on Thursday, Oct. 27, both Krase and Gatto expressed their support of the modified plan.

“There will be growth, there will be more units, but it’s at a scale that’s appropriate for the community. The success of this endeavor has inspired us to look at other pockets around the IBZ and think about continuing community-based and sponsored building,” Krase said.

They additionally have expressed interest in rebuilding their neighborly relationship. Gatto says the two spoke last weekend.

“I spoke to Kathryn the last few days. She let me take a couple of cans of paint I needed out of her basement; she is still a neighbor,” Gatto said. “This is a great city, a great borough. I think this development will be an asset to the community.”