OPINION: We Should Have Paused the Gowanus Rezoning Until After COVID

OPINION: We Should Have Paused the Gowanus Rezoning Until After COVID

By Briget Rein, Candidate for Council in D39.

It has finally happened: Judge Katherine Levine lifted the temporary restraining order and the ULURP process has begun on rezoning Gowanus. The rezoning is inevitable.

I want to make myself abundantly clear: I was never against the rezoning. I want more housing – especially affordable housing, workforce housing, and new NYCHA developments – to come to the district and Gowanus is perfect for that. Of course, when a person hears “Gowanus,” the first thing they think of is the Gowanus Canal. And that is for a good reason. It is a federal superfund site. It is polluted to no end and it needs to be cleaned up.

Because of this, I do have some qualms about people moving into buildings in the vicinity of a toxic dump and, first and foremost as a member of Community Board 6, want to be able to ask the relevant parties (e.g. the Mayor’s Office, the EPA, Department of Health, the developers) the necessary questions to quell my concerns and, then, be able to discuss both the merits and faults of supporting the rezoning.

However, as we have all seen over the past year, Zoom is not always the best medium for honest and rigorous discussion and debate. There is no ability for me to turn to my neighbor and say “did you understand what they’re saying?” or “what are your thoughts about what is being discussed?” Yes, there may be private messaging in Zoom but, as a teacher, I know that 90% of speech is non-verbal: there are hand gestures, head movements, and voice tones that can end up changing the message you are trying to convey. Now, multiply that by 50 people and add in the fact that if a host thinks you are being too loud and boisterous with your questions and arguments, you can be muted or kicked out of the meeting. That is where my issue lies.

There are real questions that need to be addressed. My friends at Voice of Gowanus have made the point that they do not think the sewer system can handle 20,000 more residents. Neighbors have asked me if the pollutants in the Gowanus Canal can reach our tap water or go into the air we breathe. The EPA, since we finally have a President who believes having clean air and clean water is essential, is finally starting to make a move on cleaning up the Gowanus Canal. Just last month, the City was ordered to build two sewage overflow tanks by 2029.

These are all great developments but I have a duty to my friends and neighbors to do my due diligence to ensure that our infrastructure can handle the influx of new residents and that not one person ever gets sick. Since I and my Community Board colleagues deserve to have a rigorous discussion on the Gowanus rezoning and it has been my experience that Zoom is an insufficient platform for that, I called for the whole rezoning process to take a pause until we can meet in person again.

There are people out there who are trying to say that I am going back on my pledge to bring affordable housing to the land by the Gowanus Canal. I stand by that pledge. However, I cannot in good conscience, as a CB6 member, vote to support a plan about which I still have outstanding questions regarding the health and safety of the residents. I could not live with myself if one family moves into a building next to the Gowanus Canal and someone gets sick. For the life of me, I cannot understand how wanting more affordable housing but wanting to wait to give my seal of approval until I know it is safe for the incoming residents is inconsistent.

It was announced earlier this week that Community Boards 2 and 6 will have a joint meeting with an in-person outdoor option. While this is an improvement, I now have concerns about accessibility with things like people being able to hear the discussion against the traffic even with a sound system, people having allergies, and people being steady on their feet outside. Regardless of my reservations, I will be there and it is my sincere hope that everyone present will be able to ask the tough questions so they can make a well-informed decision on whether to not to vote to endorse the Gowanus rezoning plan.

Briget Rein currently works for the United Federation of Teachers as Assistant to the Staff Director and previously served as government liaison to the New York City Council. As a union organizer, she has worked with educators across the city to defend their right to work in a safe environment. Briget is now running for the City Council in District 39, encompassing Brooklyn neighborhoods of the Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Windsor Terrace, and Gowanus, so that she can continue to fight for working and middle-class New Yorkers.


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