Old vs. New: As Superfund cleanup proceeds, problems emerge in Gowanus

As residents rally for historic building, is the area losing its charm through Canal cleanup?

April 11, 2018 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
On Tuesday, roughly three dozen constituents gathered outside the Gowanus Station, a historic two-story building built in the early 20th century, to try and save the structure from demolition. The structure may need to be torn down as part of the Gowanus Canal’s Superfund cleanup to make room for a combined sewage overflow tank. Eagle photos by Andy Katz
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Few residents will argue that the Superfund cleanup of the Gowanus Canal is a botched project. The 1.8-mile polluted waterway is certainly in need of some help. That much is clear.

Just look at the coal tar glistening in the afternoon sunlight. Or take in that pungent odor emitting from its surface on a warm summer day. Or perhaps, recall when “Sludgie the Whale” and a dolphin perished in the waterway. (Though their cause of death was never determined, the inhospitable conditions of Brooklyn’s notorious canal certainly could not have helped.)

During the last year, Brooklynites have seen noticeable progress in the cleanup. Odd-looking boats entered the waterway. Groups of workers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) congregated on its shore. The infamous “black mayonnaise” was removed from the canal’s floor.

Linda Mariano and Brad Vogel address fellow activists on the corner of Butler and Nevins streets.

The plan to clean the Gowanus Canal includes not only dredging contaminated deposit that has accumulated because of industrial and sewer discharge, but also installing an 8-million-gallon and a 4-million-gallon combined sewage overflow (CSO) retention tank along the canal.

The first location is at the head of the canal at 234 Butler St. next to the Gowanus Pumping Station and Flushing Tunnel. This is a private property that NYCDEP will need to acquire through eminent domain. The second proposed location is on a city-owned property at Second Avenue and Fifth Street.

An area of concern — and one that has not been resolved since the November Gowanus Superfund Town Hall — is the placement of the larger tank at the head of the canal.

EPA had previously advised the city to build the tank underneath the Double D Pool in Thomas Greene Park because it was the quickest and cheapest option, but the city did not want to take away public parkland.

To install the tank at the head of the canal, the city is considering removing the Gowanus Station, a historic two-story building constructed in the early 20th century on the corner of Butler and Nevins streets.

While residents and the owner of 234 Butler St. support installing a CSO tank on the property, they want to preserve the building and its historic façade.

In addition to its architectural value and intimate connection with Gowanus (it’s the only building in the area that bears the neighborhood’s name), the building has two nonprofit art organizations and a recycling business that operate inside.

On Tuesday, roughly three dozen constituents gathered outside the building for a candlelight vigil.

“This building is a real part of the community,” Gowanus resident Brad Vogel said. “When you look at this neighborhood, Gowanus is likely to face rezoning very soon, and as the area gets developed, it’s important that some sense of the identity of this place is retained because in so many neighborhoods across New York, they are looking more and more generic.”

“The City Council is taking the building away from me without me having a say in it,” added owner Salvatore Tagliavia. “What’s going to be affected is the livelihood of my employees and all the other businesses and nonprofits that are run out of here. The city is being a bully.”

On Wednesday, City Council overwhelmingly voted 49 to 1 in favor of acquiring the property by eminent domain. Councilmember Kalman Yegar of Bensonhurst, Borough Park and Midwood was the lone person to vote against the acquisition. Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose district the building falls under, voted yes. Councilmember Brad Lander was absent.

Tagliavia anticipates the city will take control of his property by June 30.  

Christos Tsiamis, EPA’s senior project manager for the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, told the Brooklyn Eagle that his agency consulted the State Historic Preservation Office, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group (CAG) about the building.

He confirmed that he received several comments from CAG members in favor of preserving the building, or at least a portion of the building that bears distinct historical features, and that EPA will consider all input before making a final decision.

Gowanus business owner and resident Marlene Donnelly addresses Tuesday’s rally.

“Although we have not made a determination yet, we have stated publicly in the past that, based on all the information that we had at that time, we believed that a portion of the building could be preserved,” Tsiamis told the Eagle.

For Andrea Parker, Gowanus Canal Conservancy executive director, her main priority is that the CSO tank does not pivot back to the park, which she says is an integral part of the neighborhood and one of the area’s only public spaces.

She believes the two CSO tanks will not be able to withstand Gowanus’ planned development.

“The two tanks are not at all sufficient,” Parker told the Eagle. “If the city is planning to redevelop the neighborhood, they’re going to have to invest a lot more in gray and green infrastructure throughout the watershed.

“As soon as we understand the type of density that the city is talking about, we’re going to be coming up with advocacy for solutions to address that density.”

An estimated 195 million gallons of raw sewage currently enter the canal each year. After the CSO tanks are installed, that number will be reduced to 42 million gallons.

Once those tanks fill up, rainwater and some waste will still go into the canal, but that “second flush” will be cleaner. After the rain stops, the contents of those containers will flow back into the sewers.

Councilmembers Lander and Levin were not represented at the vigil. Both Council Members did not respond to a request for comment on their absence.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.


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