Fix the environment before rezoning, Gowanus residents say

Canal cleanup takes precedence over housing, activists argue at scoping meeting

April 26, 2019 Scott Enman
The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
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Residents, activists and elected officials lambasted the city’s Gowanus rezoning plan on Thursday, calling it “shortsighted,” “overreaching” and “not responsive to the community’s needs.”

Attendees at a contentious public scoping meeting alleged that the current proposal, released in January by the Department of City Planning, would overburden infrastructure and schools, alter the character of the area, and — most importantly — compromise the cleanup of the neighborhood’s 1.8-mile toxic canal, a federal Superfund site.

Environmental activists and NYCHA residents were the most outspoken participants, demanding that before the city turns its focus to bringing in new residents, it must address the area’s existing problems.

Joseph Alexiou, a journalist, historian, neighborhood tour guide and author of “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” said it’s “basic planning” not to place housing in environmentally unsafe areas.

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“This zoning plan is predicated on the city’s insistence that we are under an affordable housing crisis,” Alexiou said. “But there is a much greater crisis — an environmental crisis — in this neighborhood that takes precedence over the lack of housing. Even the shape of the rezone doesn’t encompass the full neighborhood called Gowanus: it looks like a gerrymandered map of where developers wanted to place their buildings.

“This is about environmental justice. Plumes of toxic coal tar extend down deeper under these sites than anybody can actually measure. You’re proposing to build totally out-of-scale, 30-story buildings on toxic waste sites that are in flood zones.”

A sketch of a Gowanus Canal bridge with waterfront development and pedestrian activity. Courtesy of Department of City Planning
A sketch of what Gowanus could look like after rezoning. Courtesy of DCP

The city has selected 60 potential development sites for the neighborhood with many of them proposed along the waterway.

Residents said that the canal should be cleaned up first, that the rezoning should account for sewer overflow mitigation, and that developers should be held accountable for reducing waste coming from their buildings.

“Existing plans for managing combined sewer overflow that are already required under the Superfund cleanup will still leave us with an estimated 115 million gallons of overflow a year not accounting for additional sewage due to land use changes,” said Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.

In heavy rains, stormwater runoff – rain that flows into city sewer systems – can overwhelm the city’s waste treatment plans, forcing them to dump untreated sewage into New York’s waterways. When this happens, it’s known as combined-sewer-overflow, or CSO.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s current plan to clean the canal does not take into account any zoning changes, and residents have complained that there has been a lack of communication between the city and the EPA.

Residents also worry that once the waterway is clean, there will be no agencies to hold developers accountable if they re-pollute the canal.

The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

In addition to environmental concerns, many residents said there was a need for more open space. They also claimed that the scoping meeting is just a formality, rather than an actual opportunity to hear from residents and implement their concerns into the final rezoning plan.

NYCHA residents asked that the Gowanus Houses Community Center be fixed in the rezoning. “There’s a dollar sign on our heads,” one said. Others yelled, “Stop stealing from the poor!”

The Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group also testified on Thursday, demanding that the city identity and implement measures to sustain water quality in the canal that meets the EPA’s recreational water quality standards before allowing residential development along the waterway.

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
Gowanus residents say they have been left with more questions than answers on the Gowanus Canal’s cleanup and the neighborhood’s rezoning. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzesse

Gowanus’ watershed and sewer shed is shared with Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park and Downtown Brooklyn — two areas that have already undergone immense development with more on the way.

“Up to 400 million gallons of raw sewage pour into the canal per year and yet this zoning proposal offers no plan whatsoever to deal with the additional sewage. … Language has to mean something: 30 stories, even 22 is not ‘within the scale’ or context of the neighborhood,” Alexiou said.

“This is not ‘sustainable’ development. The first time we have public record of complaints of raw sewage in the canal is 1861, and by 1877 it was totally polluted with toxic waste. Can we not clean it first before proposing to house thousands of people next to it? When are we going to stop the shit from flowing into this canal?”

The public has until May 27 to submit written comments. DCP will respond to comments received as part of the environmental review process in the final scope of work.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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