As Brooklyn neighborhoods get rezoned, mom-and-pop businesses and longtime residents can become collateral damage. With the city mulling over a major rezoning in Gowanus, some locals there are turning to Fourth Avenue, rezoned in 2003, for lessons to learn from past mistakes.
Gowanus is among eight neighborhoods that the city has shortlisted for rezoning under a special program called PLACES, a collaborative approach in which the Department of City Planning works with neighborhood groups and other stakeholders to plan “diverse, livable neighborhoods,” as the city puts it. Rezoning plays a role. Among other neighborhoods involved in the PLACES program are East New York, Long Island City, and East Harlem
Already witnessing breakneck change, some Gowanus residents, including many artists who work there, are skeptical about what the rezoning will entail. And their anxiety isn’t baseless. In 2003, when Fourth Avenue, which separates Gowanus from Park Slope, was rezoned, it changed the landscape of the neighborhood in ways that did not go too well with many people in the neighborhood.
S.J. Avery, who has lived on Fourth for thirty years, is the co-chair of a civic organization called Fourth on Fourth Avenue, part of the Park Slope Civic Council, which has been working to improve the avenue for decades. “In all of the discussions about Gowanus and rezoning, everybody points to Fourth Avenue as a terrible example of mindless rezoning,” she said.
It all began in 2003, when the Bloomberg administration decided to rezone Park Slope. City officials wanted to preserve the historic brownstone neighborhood of Park Slope but to increase commercial and residential development nearby on Fourth Avenue. This meant that there would be no high rises in Park Slope, on the side streets, but Fourth Avenue was wide open.
Before that, “Fourth Avenue was kind of a no man’s land; there were small bodegas, hardware stores, and a few bars,” says Avery. The idea was to make the avenue more lively so that it would become a place where people would hang out. “At that time, the then-Borough President, Marty Markowitz, was touting Fourth Avenue as the new Park Avenue, full of condos and large apartment buildings,” Avery says.
In her view, that plan backfired. According to Avery, the residential units brought people to the neighborhood but did nothing to make the street more lively. On the street level she says she did not see commercial spaces, only walls, exhaust vents, and parking garages. As Avery sees it, Fourth Avenue turned into a boring thoroughfare with ugly buildings and more traffic. Avery says she saw her neighborhood transform from a tight-knit community into a hotbed for real estate developers, and much was lost.
Before, “It felt like a neighborhood because it was low density,” she said. “But now, with all the high rises going up, I feel like I’m in a valley.”
Today, if you walk along Fourth Avenue from Barclay’s Center towards South Brooklyn, you can see a new residential building going up on almost every block. So rezoning was indeed a boon for builders and new businesses that wanted to come there.
But historically, Fourth Avenue was a diverse community, home to many low-income immigrant families. That started to change after the rezoning. “The mindless rezoning resulted in high buildings with no affordable housing,” said Avery. “The residential units were mostly luxurious, and this made the neighborhood costlier and whiter.”
Michelle de la Uz is the Executive Director of Fifth Avenue Committee, a civic organization that works to advance economic and social justice in South Brooklyn. Fifth Avenue Committee has been involved with the Gowanus rezoning since 2007 when the city first began considering a rezoning. Back then, de la Uz and her team prepared a report outlining how to preserve affordable housing in the rezoning plan, and they had learned from what they saw as the failures on Fourth Avenue during the Park Slope rezoning. According to de la Uz, more than 50 units of affordable housing on Fourth Avenue were lost in the 2003 Park Slope rezoning.
Tenants in buildings that are more than 50% occupied are protected from demolition by the law but de la Uz says that on Fourth Avenue, even some fully occupied buildings were demolished. According to the committee’s case study, five such buildings—150, 152, 154, 156, and 158 4th Avenue—were demolished, resulting in the loss of at least 40 affordable units.
“Tactics were used like threatening people by calling immigration, leaving the doors open, bringing dogs in, cutting off services,” she said. “When we got involved and started organizing the building, buyout offers started to come in. So they went from illegal tactics to legal tactics. Ultimately all those low-income families were displaced from rent-stabilized housing and we have luxury housing in its place now.”
New businesses that came to Fourth after the rezoning continue to grow. Kitty Hernandez owns Brooklyn Colony, a bar and cafe with an exposed brick interior, good music, and a community vibe. She moved to Fourth Avenue in 2006. Ever since, she says, she has been seeing new people pour into the neighborhood. The development has been good for her business. Still, she admits that she’s able to survive only because her landlord is “awesome” and doesn’t price her out. “And that is rare,” she says. “There are many sharks on Fourth Avenue.”
Fourth Avenue gentrified after the rezoning. But is that the norm? According to de la Uz, not always. “It depends on what the rezoning allows,” she says. She isn’t opposed to rezoning, as long as it is inclusive, she says: “We’re not anti-growth, we’re anti-displacement.”
So what are the lessons for Gowanus? According to de la Uz, figuring in affordable housing into rezoning is key. “We have 200 units of rent-stabilized housing in Gowanus and three large public housing complexes—including Gowanus, Wyckoff, and Warren Street houses—which are home to the lowest-income families in the neighborhood,” said de la Uz. “Preserving those units of housing is very, very important.”
Ahead of the probable rezoning, the Department of City Planning is conducting meetings and public forums for residents, workers, and local businesses. According to DNAinfo, 250 people attended the kickoff meeting, held on Oct. 27. “What’s been good about Gowanus, and what’s different about Gowanus, is people know what they want Gowanus to look like and they have a say in it,” says Avery who has been attending the meetings and discussions about the rezoning.
In the case of Fourth Avenue, she says, the residents had no say.