As neighborhood booms, locals asked to plan the future of Gowanus

'Bridging Gowanus' public forum on December 9

December 3, 2013 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Things are moving fast in gritty Gowanus. An enormous Whole Foods — complete with rooftop farm and bar — is scheduled to open at Third Street and Third Avenue on December 17, artisanal shops and restaurants are sprouting up like kudzu along Third Avenue, and on Monday, the Lightstone Group began to prep its canal-side properties for a 700-unit apartment complex. A 10-court shuffleboard club is set to open early in 2014.

Along with this explosion in development, however, comes many questions — including how to protect the area’s industrial character, nurture its growing arts and small business community, invest in infrastructure and prevent flooding from the notoriously toxic Gowanus Canal. Last year, Superstorm Sandy caused the canal to overflow its banks, flooding nearby streets and basements with disgusting raw sewage.

Now is the time to plan for the area’s future, say representatives including Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who are hosting the first in a series of public forums on Monday, December 9 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at P.S. 372, 512 Carroll Street.

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its $506 million Superfund cleanup plan for the Gowanus Canal, and officials hope to build on this plan with the public’s help.

Called “Bridging Gowanus,” the initiative is meant to develop “a neighborhood framework for the infrastructure and land use plan needed for a safe, vibrant and sustainable Gowanus,” planners say. Pratt Center for Community Development is facilitating the initiative.

“Bridging Gowanus will bring together a wide range of viewpoints to identify broadly-shared goals, engage in honest conversation about different viewpoints, and build as much as consensus as we can around a long-term vision for the canal area,” said Council Member Lander. “The future of the Gowanus area is being set. Let’s come together as a community and ensure that our vision is at the center of the discussion.”

“After years of false starts, the tenacity of the Gowanus community has been rewarded with a great cleanup plan,” neighborhood resident Josh Skaller said in a statement. He added, “A truly exciting opportunity before us now.”

Hans Hesselein, Executive Director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, said the initiative would build on the momentum of change brought by the Superfund remediation, thawing of the real estate market, and the administration changes in the Mayor’s office.

Not everyone believes that the process so far has been entirely transparent, however. Katia Kelly, author of the Pardon Me for Asking blog which has been following the Gowanus developments closely, says she remains “very skeptical” of the entire Gowanus planning process.

She notes that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio strongly supported the canal-side apartment project as a City Councilman back in 2008, when Toll Brothers first proposed it. (After the EPA designated the area a Superfund cleanup site, Toll Brothers dropped the project and Lightstone picked it up.)

Kelly says that a Gowanus Planning Kick-Off meeting was held back in August — but the meeting was not announced and was not open to the general public.

Before the city moves ahead with any re-zoning, Kelly says, “We need a health study to gauge the effects of exposure to the environmental hazards in Gowanus. Secondly, we need a hydrological study to evaluate the effect of new development in this flood prone area.” She is also calling for assurances from Mayor-elect de Balsio that the city will “pay and follow through on the EPA-mandated retention basins.”

“I do believe that the community needs to take the planning process back,” she writes.

Planners told the Eagle that the August meeting invited stakeholders from local organizations and neighborhood associations, and was meant to organize and set the stage for the broader community meetings. They encourage residents to come on December 9 and make their voices heard.

“We all have seen what has happened in other neighborhoods where decisions have been made without the input of the community,” Abby Subak, the Director of Arts Gowanus said in a statement. “As artists in the Gowanus neighborhood, we are committed to keeping Gowanus as a place that nurtures and supports creativity and art-making. We are looking forward to participating in this process and defining how a Gowanus of the future can continue to support artists.”

Representatives participating in the December 9 forum include Council Member Brad Lander, Council Member Stephen Levin, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, Assemblywoman Joan Millman and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. The Lightstone properties are located at 363-365 Bond Street and 400 Carroll Street.

Visit BridgingGowanus.org for more about this initiative.

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