Gowanus residents demand rezoning wait until after canal cleanup

Residents call city unprepared, DEP continues push for tunnel remediation option

March 27, 2019 Scott Enman
Gowanus residents say they have been left with more questions than answers on the Gowanus Canal's cleanup and the neighborhood's looming rezoning. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzesse
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Gowanus residents allege that two city agencies tasked with overseeing the neighborhood’s rezoning and canal cleanup are unprepared and have left them in the dark.

Tensions boiled over on Tuesday at the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group’s monthly gathering with employees of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of City Planning.

Related: Gowanus rezoning plan: a developer’s ‘fantasy,’ advocates say

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“It was a revealing meeting,” Joseph Alexiou, a journalist, historian and author of “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” told the Brooklyn Eagle. “You could see just how little communication seems to happen. The community is not totally in touch with the city, and the city is not in touch with each other.

“There’s a missing tier of leadership here. The community was trying to identity that person, and they couldn’t do it. The city was being defensive, dismissive and not answering the questions. People in the audience are armed with a lot of information, but they don’t seem to respect that.”

DEP and DCP were invited to answer more than 20 questions that were submitted in January, but residents said virtually none of the inquiries were answered.

“I was hoping that DEP and DCP would have a more structured joint presentation, answering the questions the CAG had presented,” Gowanus resident Brad Vogel told the Eagle. “Even with both city agencies — and the Environmental Protection Agency — in the room, it felt like we weren’t getting clear answers.”

Residents wanted to know if the proposed Gowanus rezoning would create more sewage overflow that would endanger the cleaned-up canal; what agency or entity would police new developments along the waterway; and how that entity or group of entities will do so.

Residents also wanted someone to hold accountable if something goes wrong. “The community needs concrete answers to these questions,” Vogel said.

But DEP, undeterred by the residents’ complaints, said it appreciated the lively discussion and stressed that the agency is still in the early stages of the canal cleanup.

“New Yorkers all agree that we have the best drinking water around, but beyond that topic we all love to argue — and we appreciated the broad range of perspectives voiced at the Gowanus CAG meeting,” Ted Timbers, communications director of DEP, told the Eagle.

“We made clear we’re early in the process of understanding future impacts and are committed to an ongoing dialogue. If the CAG’s ultimate goal is to clean up the canal — then there’s no debate — DEP’s proposed tunnel alternative further reduces CSOs, enables scalability for increased population growth and creates less disruption during construction.”

Natalie Loney, community involvement coordinator for the federal EPA, said her organization was still not prepared to make a decision on whether to choose the tunnel option or stick with a pair of $2.1 billion tanks to manage sewer overflow.

Related: Millions to billions: A price breakdown of the Gowanus Canal’s costly sewage tanks

“DCP is working with DEP to ensure the sewer and infrastructure needs in Gowanus are met as the neighborhood grows,” DCP spokesperson Rachaele Raynoff told the Eagle. “We will update the CAG when we have details from the environmental analysis.”

Residents also pressed to know why the Gowanus rezoning couldn’t be postponed until after the canal was fully clean.

“DEP dismissively says they will look into things, but it sounds empty,” Alexiou said. “If a regular New Yorker or any outsider comes in and says, ‘Wait, you’re going to build these big buildings here before the cleanup is finished?’ They say that’s insane.”

Until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed for the rezoning, however, it will be unlikely that either agency can address how increased density will affect the amount of waste in the neighborhood.

Residents pleaded with city employees to imagine what it’s like smelling the pungent odor of the canal in the summer or walking past sewage seeping into the street “like geysers” during rainstorms. They told the Eagle that it seemed as though both agencies were unprepared to field their questions and that they deflected responsibility.

“There is a lot of mistrust on the CAG towards the city and that dates back to initially [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and DEP not wanting the Superfund to be declared,” Gowanus Canal Conservancy executive director Andrea Parker told the Eagle.

“This is clearly the neighborhood that has been most vocal and most active around the CSO issue. We would welcome some really creative and thoughtful policies [accounting for how] new density will manage its own sewage and really contribute to the solution. That needs to be figured out during the zoning process.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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