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NYT: The Difficult-To-Develop Gowanus Canal

October 26, 2009

For those of you interested in the development of the Gowanus Canal, the Bloomberg Administration’s handling of the situation, and the state of affairs regarding this Brooklyn blight, The New York Times Magazine has an upcoming article. Here’s a preview:

THE GOWANUS CANAL runs one and a half miles through brownstone Brooklyn, cutting a disreputable gash between two of the most desirable residential neighborhoods in New York City. Sunken below street level, no more than 100 feet across at most points, the canal does not really flow — it skulks. On sunny days, its waters take a greenish hue and are clear enough to afford glimpses of rotting bulkhead timbers, mud-caked tires and other submerged detritus. When it’s overcast, the water turns an inert gray. In the lawless old days, industries along the canal’s banks fouled it with all kinds of pollution. Today, the canal is mostly disused, a corridor of warehouses and razor wire, and the most enduring reminders of its colorful past emanate from several underground deposits of coal tar, which belch up oily bubbles. The residue forms a prismatic sheen on the canal’s surface, reflecting shimmering visions of the landscape.

Created in the mid-19th century out of a tidal creek named for an Indian headman, the Gowanus long resisted attempts at reformation, in sluggish defiance of generations of city planners, civic do-gooders, editorialists and speculators. But over the past decade, the government has cleaned up the water a bit, allowing the canal to be recolonized by some hardier forms of natural life — shore crabs and cormorants, silvery bait fish — along with enterprising humans. First came the artists for the cheap studio space, then the hipsters for the decayed authenticity, and finally, in the inevitable progression, residential developers arrived.

The Bloomberg administration, sensing a chance for revitalization, rushed to rezone 25 blocks of the Gowanus area for nonindustrial uses, identifying more than 60 development sites with a potential to generate at least $500 million in tax revenue.

It didn’t appear to be a deterrent that the canal was, quite literally, still something of a cesspool. New York is, after all, a city where people have proved themselves willing to live almost anywhere, where no location, be it smelly or notorious (think the meatpacking district or Hell’s Kitchen or Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue, formerly known as Murder Avenue), seems to be beyond the reach of gentrification. But the case of the Gowanus Canal has put that assumption to an extreme test. The redevelopment process was creeping forward when, in April, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was considering adding the Gowanus Canal to its Superfund cleanup program, which is reserved for the nation’s worst hazardous-waste sites. The move surprised and enraged city officials, who warn that the “stigma” of being included in the program could halt economic improvement indefinitely.

“What some people say is, ‘Well, everybody knows the Gowanus Canal is polluted,’ ” says Cas Holloway, a mayoral adviser. “That is true, but the Superfund designation, in itself, is an important signifier in the marketplace.”

As the environmental debate rages on, the Gowanus Canal has been left to wait on the verge of metamorphosis, no longer one thing but not yet another. “It’s this area of transition,” a real estate broker named William Duke told me recently. It was a warm weekday evening in September, and we were standing at the trash-strewn terminus of a street that dead-ends into the waterway. “Between the old and the new, the natural world and the man-made world,” Duke went on. “It’s poetic.”

Duke is a canal enthusiast, a member of the small and quirky community that congregates around it, like so much flotsam, and a member of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. Once or twice a week, club members lend canoes to anyone willing to sign a liability waiver. Duke handed me and my sister, my canoeing companion, life jackets and paddles and helped us put into the water for an exploratory trip. High above us loomed a long-abandoned powerhouse for the old streetcar lines, now tagged with anticorporate slogans. A couple of years ago, it was taken over by squatting punks, who were rousted by foreign investors, including a diamond magnate close to Vladimir Putin. They announced plans to knock down the structure and replace it with Gowanus Village, a set of Brutalist-looking apartment buildings designed by a renowned architectural firm.

It was the same story everywhere along the canal: developers had come bearing watercolor renderings of an idealized blue waterway, flanked by condo buildings and walkways full of joggers and strollers. At Carroll Street, next to a landmarked retractile bridge, we saw a grove of poplars and an informal outdoor performance space that was slated to make way for a 450-unit complex of condominiums and town houses developed by Toll Brothers, the national luxury homebuilder. Farther along, past a string of moored boats of uncertain seaworthiness, there was another proposed residential development site. Doubling back to the canal’s south end, where there was a strong smell of petroleum, we paddled by a six-acre lot, owned by the city, that was intended for a 770-unit, mixed-income apartment complex, with an adjoining park, boathouse and waterside cafe. Then, near the Seussian pile of a scrap-metal yard, there was the coup de grâce of impending yuppification: a construction site that was supposed to become a Whole Foods.

All of these projects were proposed at the height of New York’s real estate boom, and nowadays, regardless of the outcome of the Superfund controversy, some of them look very much like the products of mania. But whether they actually come to fruition, the plans have already altered the canal’s identity, after decades of neglect, by making it into something valuable enough to fight over. Since the arrival of the developers, numerous competing interests have stepped forward to stake their own claims to what Bill Appel, the head of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, calls “a vast wasteland.” The urban homesteaders who have moved there want it to remain an eccentric hideaway; artists want to preserve its postapocalyptic look; a civic group, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, proposes to create a public park atop an innovative filtration system that acts like an artificial wetland.

“A few years ago, if you said ‘Gowanus’ to people, it had a connotation of rundown, derelict, even toxic, space,” says Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of the forthcoming book “Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.” But in a city where industry is increasingly invisible, it’s perhaps only natural that the canal would come to be prized, precisely because it retains some qualities of a vanishing, unsterilized version of the city. “It goes back to an earlier period when Brooklyn was new,” Zukin said, “and it offers a path back to a time that we don’t know.”

IT WAS THE day before the September Democratic primary election in New York City, and Salvatore Scotto — known as Buddy to friends and foes alike — was in his natural element. Sitting in a small coffee shop on Court Street in Brooklyn, he greeted gray-haired men in Italian, reminding them to vote for his favorite City Council candidate and jovially pressing them to buy tickets to a community group’s fund-raiser. “The mayor is going to be there,” Scotto promised. “He’s going to tell us something about the Gowanus Canal.”

One of the city’s senior Gowanus enthusiasts, Scotto is a funeral-home proprietor and neighborhood politico, a cheerfully anachronistic clubhouse character. Scotto, who is 81, likes to call himself the mayor of the Gowanus Canal and takes credit — much of it deserved — for seeing the waterway’s potential when others simply held their noses. In an era before modern sanitation, the canal was designed to serve not only as a commercial port but also as a discharge point for the city’s sewer system. By the time Buddy Scotto’s grandfather arrived in Brooklyn in 1898, a public campaign against the canal’s revolting smell was already afoot, with some calling for the corridor to be closed down and filled in. Instead, the city built a tunnel that circulated water from New York Harbor through the canal. But that solution never completely worked, and when the tunnel broke down in the 1960s, no one bothered to fix it. “The stench was clear up to Court Street in the summertime,” Scotto recalled. How the canal started to get clean, as he tells it, is an ornate tale of vintage municipal intrigue: he got a new sewage treatment plant built through horse-trading with Nelson Rockefeller and extracted a promise of financing to restore the flushing tunnel from a congressman weakened by a sex scandal. Bureaucratic delays kept the tunnel work from being completed for years, but finally in 1999 it began pumping in hundreds of millions of gallons of harbor water.

By this time most waterfront industries had deserted the canal. Scotto had a model for its revival: the picturesque river that runs through San Antonio, which is lined by restaurants and hotels. And sure enough, once the flushing system began to dissipate the infamous odor, life began to stir. High-priced development was marching toward the canal in a pincer movement, from Carroll Gardens on one side and Park Slope on the other. The 2006 announcement that Toll Brothers planned to build a $250 million residential complex on the canal marked a watershed moment. The publicly traded company was the quintessential suburban luxury brand, best known for its lavish estate homes. The idea that it would consider the Gowanus Canal a comfortable place to settle made Scotto feel vindicated. “I want that development badly,” he said. “I mean, getting Toll Brothers to prove that you can have people living on that canal!”

Other builders rushed to follow Toll Brothers’ slipstream. But local opposition materialized just as quickly. The divide was clannish: fixtures of the old Italian neighborhood were increasingly outnumbered by the artsy types who had gained a foothold along the canal and the professionals who had paid millions for town houses on the tree-lined (and now stink-free) streets nearby. Some critics objected to the scale of the project, others accused it of corporate blandness, but the chief rallying cry was environmental.

In March 2009, the City Council voted to let Toll Brothers proceed with its project, but within weeks the E.P.A. threw up a new obstacle: the proposed Superfund listing. Toll Brothers and the other developers recoiled in horror. “You can’t sell a condominium on a Superfund site,” says Robert Pascucci, whose construction company has tentative plans to build a 360-unit residential complex along the canal. To Scotto, it seemed that the E.P.A. was carelessly throwing a lifetime’s worth of work into doubt.

SINCE THE E.P.A.’S announcement, all the other issues surrounding the canal, including the city’s rezoning initiative, have been superseded by an argument over federal intervention. Superfund supporters say that the E.P.A.’s move confirmed what they always suspected: that the canal is too dangerous to develop. “It’s a swamp,” says Marlene Donnelly, an architectural designer and a leader of group called Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, or Frogg, which meets in the back of a wine store on fashionable Smith Street. “It’s not the place for this kind of development.”

There are multiple dimensions to the canal’s pollution problems. First there is the ongoing problem of the water. The city’s ancient sewer system runs both stormwater and household waste through the same overloaded pipes, and when it rains, some of the overflow is redirected into the canal; an estimated 300 million gallons of dirty water, including untreated sewage, flood into the Gowanus each year. Riverkeeper, the environmental advocacy group, has detected unsafe levels of pathogens in regular tests of the water. “There are extremely high concentrations of a lot of really, really nasty things,” says Joshua Verleun, a Riverkeeper staff lawyer.

That’s obviously not a selling point for real estate, and as part of its redevelopment efforts the city had already announced a $175 million plan to limit the sewer overflow. But that would do little to address an even nastier problem: the bottom of the canal, which hasn’t been extensively dredged since 1975 because of the complexity and expense involved in dumping the sediment. Core samples contain a horde of chemicals, some of them now banned, and heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic. Probably the most vexing contaminant is coal tar, a byproduct of a 19th-century process for manufacturing gas for lighting. There were once three gas plants along the Gowanus, and they left behind spreading subterranean lakes of ooze that have since seeped into the canal’s bed.

Walter Mugdan, the E.P.A. official who coordinates the Superfund program in New York, says that bringing the canal into the program is the best way to assure that it gets completely remediated. (When I asked him about the wisdom of canoeing the canal, he replied, “Try not to tip.”) The Bloomberg administration has vehemently opposed the proposal on grounds that the Superfund process is litigious and glacially slow, and it has proposed its own alternative plan that is tied to multiple, but uncertain, financing sources, including Congressional earmarks.

Toll Brothers has made it clear that if the designation is made, it will almost certainly walk away from the Gowanus Canal. “We’re talking decades” for a Superfund cleanup to be completed, says David Von Spreckelsen, the Toll Brothers executive leading the project. He says that existing city and state programs have already made great progress without hindering investment. “For a really valuable area in the heart of New York City, the heart of Brooklyn, is Superfund really the way we want to go?” Von Spreckelsen asks. “Because we’re writing it off for a really, really long time.”

Of course, there are plenty of other forces conspiring against development at the present moment. Like most homebuilders, Toll Brothers has been hit hard by the nationwide real estate collapse — it has reported $644 million in net losses so far this year — and some local observers wonder whether the economic impetus that drove the wave of investment in the Gowanus may have ebbed. For instance, despite price cuts, Satori, a high-profile 34-unit condominium development across the street from the canal, has recorded only 12 sales since it hit the market in the late summer of 2008, according to The developers who proposed Gowanus Village have already given up and put their land back on the market. As the final decision on Superfund listing sits with E.P.A. authorities in Washington, it looks increasingly likely that, for the immediate future, the canal will continue to belong to those who are already there — the pioneers.

“I think the economy has saved the artists,” says Joshua Marks, a sculptor who is a coordinator of a Gowanus studio tour, held every October, called Agast. The bohemians have been drawn to the canal by many of the very qualities that its self-appointed saviors hope to eliminate. They have shown an arch appreciation for its toxic reputation, making the Gowanus landscape into a subject of their work and finding inventive ways to reuse its rundown structures. A few years ago, a group of artists took over a decrepit World War II-era Navy rescue boat and turned it into a floating gallery space. This summer, a company called Macro Sea set up some trash container bins on a parking lot, lined them with plastic, filled them with water and started a postindustrial pool club. One of the canal’s most distinctive sights is a pair of silo-shaped structures, former storage tanks that have been retrofitted as artist studios by a local investor and impresario named David Lefkowitz. The past two years, Lefkowitz has teamed with a party promoter to put on summertime musical events next to the silos and the dock where he parks his motorboat.

If the canal’s recent history is a conflict between what is and what could be, Lefkowitz has a foot on each side of the transition. Practically, he’s a speculator, but temperamentally he’s an enthusiast. A ruddy man of diverse pursuits, he bought his land a decade ago, and he speaks about the waterway in almost mystical terms. “Even if the water was dirty, you could feel that magic,” he told me one recent afternoon, as he piloted his motorboat toward the Ninth Street Bridge. We passed a metal yard, where a massive crane was loading salvaged scraps onto a barge — a fine metaphor, Lefkowitz suggested. “It’s a miracle of rebecoming,” he told me. “What’s exciting to people is that they can stand there and fantasize about what it could become.”

The narrow corridor opened up into Gowanus Bay and then the bobbing expanse of New York Harbor. Lefkowitz explained why, after many years of trying out various enterprises, he finally agreed to sell his property to Toll Brothers, at a considerable price. “There is no other dream that makes sense,” he said. “The usage that’s coming is the usage of its time.”

As we headed back up the canal, we passed a group of teenagers hanging out at the end of a dead-end road, smoking something. “Where does this lead to?” one of them yelled across the dark green water.

Lefkowitz shouted back, “Heaven!”

  1. Gerry permalink
    October 26, 2009 1:53 pm

    Bloomberg has failed again lol

  2. GeeGee permalink
    October 26, 2009 6:07 pm

    The Bloomberg administration has rolled out the Flushing Tunnel Project so many times over the past 5 years that you would think that the work would have been at least started by now. But Bloomberg has not carried out any cleanup projects on this canal. He has had 8 years to take real action and has not carried out any of the fancy plans or “green” ideas in his 2030 PlaNYC program–nothing!

    It’s time to let those who know what they are doing take on this project–the EPA. Lets move on now. The discussion about development on this canal is needs to line up with reality.

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