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To ensure affordable housing units can be built and expand opportunities to promote a thriving, inclusive community in the Gowanus neighborhood of New York City, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed an amicus brief today on behalf of three Brooklyn-based nonprofits Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC), Arts Gowanus and the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation (SBIDC). The amicus brief argues that the city should be allowed to proceed with virtual public hearings as it works to rezone the area.  

Gowanus is a historically industrial section of South Brooklyn, and borders predominantly white, upper income Brooklyn communities. Over time, the area has experienced significant gentrification and displacement to the point where it is now considerably higher income and more heavily white than New York City or Brooklyn as a whole.

“The development of affordable housing in high opportunity areas like Gowanus is critical to the advancement of economic and racial justice in New York City and remedying the harms of inequitable land use policies,” said Thomas Silverstein, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The court must recognize that efforts to block the Gowanus Rezoning threaten to reinforce systemic racism and structural inequality and should dismiss the case immediately.”

“Whether intentional or not, the delay of the Gowanus rezoning moving forward would perpetuate the status quo in the community which shuts out opportunities for deeply and permanently affordable housing and perpetuates segregation, makes it harder for light industrial business and artists to compete for affordable spaces, limits publicly accessible open space and would result in no new investments for public housing or other critical local infrastructure needs, said Michelle de la Uz, executive director, Fifth Avenue Committee. “The time is now to advance the public debate on the Gowanus rezoning plan.”  

The city of New York and other external stakeholders are seeking to rezone the neighborhood to build more deeply and permanently affordable housing, promote the ‘Gowanus mix’ of light industrial and artists uses, expand publicly accessible open space and improve resilience and sustainability.  FAC, Arts Gowanus and SBIDC are part of a local coalition which is advocating for significant commitments and investments from the City of New York beyond what has already been laid out by the City to ensure that the areawide rezoning benefits local New York City Housing Authority developments and public housing residents and is more locally accountable.   

However, opponents of the rezoning have brought a lawsuit against the city, in an effort to delay the rezoning until Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term ends, at which time there is a significant risk that the affordable housing plan would be abandoned. The opponents claim that the city must hold in-person public hearings to fulfill their community engagement obligations. However, since the city cannot go forward with these public hearings due to COVID-19 restrictions on in-person gatherings, it will be impossible for them to do so.   

The national Lawyers’ Committee’s amicus brief argues that this rezoning and the development of affordable housing units in the Gowanus neighborhood would advance racial and economic justice, fulfill the city’s obligations to affirmatively further fair housing and that this lawsuit should not stand in the way. Additionally, we argue that in-person public hearings would imperil public health with a particularly devastating impact on Black and Latinx New Yorkers. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx New Yorkers, and the restrictions on in-person gatherings must stay in place to keep these communities safe. The city, relying on recommendations from amici, could hold virtual public hearings that allow for even more robust community engagement than typically occurs with in-person public hearings. 

“Arts Gowanus has not taken a position for or against the Gowanus Rezoning, but we believe there is too much at stake to delay the public process,” said Johnny Thornton, executive director of Arts GowanusAlthough we too are concerned about how ULURP is managed and seek for it to be as open and interactive as possible — allowing all voices to be heard — stopping that process is not in the best interests of the Gowanus community or its many stakeholders. Not only are we strongly advocating for more affordable and sustainable workspaces for artists, makers, and creatives as part of the rezoning, we stand with Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ) and their demands to create a more equitable Gowanus.”    

“SBIDC wants to see the public process move forward to explore how different needs in the community can be balanced,” said Ben Margolis, executive director of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. And we believe the vast majority of Gowanus’ essential employers and workers want to continue their engagement,” said Ben Margolis, executive director of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. 

Read the amicus brief.  

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Contact: Ian Weiner, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, [email protected] 

Michelle de la Uz, Fifth Avenue Committee, [email protected] 

Johnny Thornton, Arts Gowanus, info@artsgowanus.org