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Taking Back the Gowanus Canal

It’s hard to tell today, but the Gowanus Canal was originally a productive wetlands that was filled in in the 19th century for industrial uses. The numerous industrial plants, some of which still exist, produced a variety of toxic pollutants which made it one of the most highly contaminated bodies of water in the United States. Of these plants, the Brooklyn Union Gas’ (now National Grid) 3 coal gasification plants that bordered the Canal and the discharge of street runoff and untreated sewage from outfalls on the Canal especially during rain events were most important.  In 2010 the EPA designated the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site due to the risk to people consuming fish from the mouth of the Canal and to possible exposure of people using the Canal for recreational purposes. The residents and organizations that have been active in meeting over the last 4 years are overwhelmingly in favor of the EPA planned cleanup (EPA has oversight; the Polluters will plan and pay for the cleanup.). The community was told by EPA in 2010 could take 12 to 14 years.

Many residents and involved community group representatives have been concerned about proposed residential housing on the Canal and on one of the most highly highly polluted coal gasification sites, Pubic Place, between Smith Street and the Canal and south of 5th Street. At that site in addition to many residences, a children’s center plus playground was proposed directly on the side of the Canal. The latter seems to be off the agenda for now. Some citizens have been concerned that building residences on the Canal will not only impede the EPA-planned cleanup efforts but will expose residents to pollutants during the cleanup process. EPA assured the community that there will be no exposure and that the cleanup will proceed as planned, but the community is concerned.

Lightstone, a development firm, is currently building 700 units of housing on Bond Street, south of Union.   It is a brownfield site (has industrial pollutants) that is supposed to be remediated by the builder. Neighboring residents are being exposed to pile driving that is creating cracks in nearby buildings, very high noise levels and some are concerned that insufficient effort is going on the insure that exposure to the toxins being removed are done so in a safe manner. To some nearby residents it appears that the NYSDEC, which has authority, may not be providing sufficient oversight.

Bridging Gowanus and Brad Lander

In fall of 2013 and early 2014, Councilman Brad Lander set up a number of community meetings entitled Bridging Gowanus. The attendees were guided to a set of specific topics to create a vision of what the community saw as the future of the Canal. Pratt was there to create a report at the end of the series of meetings. At each meeting the attendees were broken up into groups to discuss an aspect or various aspects.   At no time were individual attendees allowed to voice their individual views to the entire group.

Numerous residents and concerned citizens who attended the meetings felt that their views and concerns were ignored and that it appeared to many that the outcome of the “vision” was preordained to include 12 to 15 story residential housing . At the last of the Bridging Gowanus Meeting in late June the attendees were given a choice of high rise housing in exchange for parks and schools. None of the other choices given appeared valid. There were no choices that included wetlands, addressed infrastructure or brownfields. Some 14 people engaged in a protest at the outset of the final meeting to object to the lack of democracy in the process.

Take Back Gowanus

On July 9 1914, about 100 people came to listen to and speak about their concerns about Councilman Brad Lander’s “Bridging Gowanus” meetings that he hosted in 2013 and 2014.  But, many of us at the events felt the outcomes of those meetings had been predetermined and that the voices of many of the concerned citizens were not really heard.   No mention was made of what happens with another Sandy, nor infrastructure nor, nor other issues of concern to many citizens and residents.

Joseph Alexiou, a local activist and historian hosted a meeting to Take Back Gowanus on July 9 to rally neighbors and others around the canal to actually do something about how the planning work was proceeding. After the introductions, a democratic process took place where any person who wanted to make a very brief statement could do so about their concerns and hopes for the Gowanus Canal, now and in the future, after the Superfund cleanup process is done.  The people who came were primarily those who felt that their views had not been heard at the Bridging Gowanus meetings. There was a feeling of excitement and advocacy. People were each given the opportunity to make a very brief presentation and each of these were recorded on a spread sheet which has been shared with the attendees. People spoke with varying views from not moving forward at all with the superfund cleanup (leaving it all as it is)  to industry protection to making the Canal  a destination for visitors with recreational uses available.  I said that what the Sierra Club would strongly support keeping the banks as free of buildings as possible, building sponge parks and if possible to try to reestablish wetlands.   This would not be easy, but doing so would make the next Sandy less damaging. Other presenters talked about keeping small businesses and small industries on the Canal. Others supported the arts and entertainment centers which have opened along the Canal. Time ran out close to 10 pm. A second meeting would be scheduled with time and date to be sent out.

What is Needed Now

In my view the following priorities are critical.

  • In light of the dangers of flooding, there should be minimal development along the Canal and open spaces that still exist should be maintained.
  • To the extent possible, wetlands in areas like Public Place (an area that National Grid is cleaning up of past coal gas process contaminants) and in the area designated the Sponge Park should be restored.  These could be important given projected sea level rise and the likelihood of more Sandys in the future.
  • Small industries and businesses that still exist, including the artist and artisans, and entertainment areas that line the Canal, should be preserved.
  • Large housing developments, planned alongside the Canal, which will be vulnerable during the cleanup process and will probably not be completed for another 10 years, should not be built. Their presence will negatively impact the movement of water during storms and will require added water and waste water infrastructure that has not been a part the City current plans.

I am looking forward to the next meeting.

Diane Buxbaum has an MPH and is Conservation Chair of the NYC Group Sierra Club

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