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Bridging Gowanus Proposal — a Bridge Too Short

In the release of the thirteen-page executive summery of the Bridging-Gowanus proposed redevelopment framework, the plan puts forward the admirable goal “to develop a comprehensive plan for the infrastructure and land use regulations needed for a safe, vibrant, and sustainable Canal area”, . . .  “an innovative model for inclusive, sustainable, low-lying, vibrant, mixed-use urban areas on a warming planet.”  While no maps are included in the report, the planning forums defined the area as the current industrial zone along the banks of the Gowanus.

There is very little discussion given to climate change, though the framework begins by addressing infrastructure. It states  that there is a current a city feasibility study for flood gates at the harbor end of the canal from which a course of action has yet to be set for Gowanus. Curiously, there was no mention of the US Army Corp program for wetlands restoration of the Gowanus.

The bulk of the of the report goes on about land-use issues, and somehow arrives at a rezoning discussion that would allow 8 to 18 story buildings in a special district for this low-lying inland drainage basin that is open to the New York harbor.  And while the planners look to mitigate displacement of arts, industries, and affordable housing from the impending rise in land value a rezoning would bring, there is no discussion of the very real possibility of displacement due to the impending rise of the ocean. Sea level rise, the elephant in the room, is simply not addressed.

As the author of Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York, Ted Steinberg, recently pointed out that, by the 2050’s, sea level around New York may rise by 11 to 24 inches.

The Lightstone 770 unit housing project, which was granted under a spot rezoning to build on the banks of the canal, has built in 12 inches of leeway as per the new Sandy building codes. They will also elevate the banks of the canal to a height higher than the upland area, potential exacerbating the drainage patterns of the area. In fact, these areas already need significant improvements to manage the heavier, problematic rainfall the area is already experiencing due to climate change. The green infrastructure proposals of the city are hardly capable of handling what is becoming the typical rainfall and will, in the long run, contribute to a higher groundwater tables where the framework intends to allow large scale development.

The canal landscape, as a watershed drainage basin for a significant portion of Brooklyn, seems to have gotten lost in the heated discussions over land-use zoning. Outside developers who claim that they will raise property value in this swamp land if they can build 18 story buildings are pitted against local industrial arts businesses trying to avoid eviction, supported by an abutting residential population struggling with the burdensome environmental conditions of the area. This includes a Superfund cleanup which will not begin in the field till 2017. The Lightstone project will be open for occupation in January 2016.

The entire area under consideration for rezoning was under a mandatory evacuation order during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Residents were put up at local schools in Park Slope. With more than an additional 1000 residents soon to be living on the banks of this canal, and a rezoning framework that could allow 40-50,000 additional residents into the low-lying coastal swamp land, the Bridging Gowanus Framework comes up short on disaster planning, especially plans that would address life in this swamp for the next generation, when the sea may well be 24 inches higher than it was under the Framework proposal. And do the authors of this framework expect us to believe that a possible Gowanus harbor floodgate is a mitigation plan for sea level rise?

As Mr Steinberg stated, one can reasonably ask why there should be more building and development in the riskiest coastal areas.  The framers of this Bridging-Gowanus Framework seem to have forgotten the fundamental “frame of context” in which they were planning. Lets hope they will go back to their drawing boards by first taking a serious look at the 2010 NYS Coastal Sea Level Rise Task Force Report which takes the difficult, but responsible and sustainable approach, of attempting to confront the issues between the demands of developers for development rights and impending sea level rise.