Disparate factions unite to 'take back' Gowanus

What do a self-styled “provocateur,” a mohawked leather jacket punk rocker, a dredger, a cartographer, a cane-wielding rabble rouser, a public housing advocate and a sprinkling of neighborhood homeowners, preservationists, attorneys and industrial workers all have in common?

Council Member Brad Lander has somehow convinced them to band together–against him, and developers interested in the Gowanus canal.

“Lander’s whole process was rigged to create a forced consensus to give the developers a green light to go forward,” said Debbie Stoller, a resident of Gowanus for 11 years. “This meeting is meant to set that straight.”

She was referencing “Take Back Gowanus,” a meeting Wednesday night of local residents frustrated after their City Council member’s recent “Bridging Gowanus” three-part series failed to live up their democratic ideal, despite a claimed intention of fostering community engagement about the future of the neighborhood.

The event was hosted by local resident Joseph Alexiou, whose concerns about the one-sided, pro-development tone and direction of Lander’s meetings–concerns he claimed he addressed to the council member directly–went unanswered.

“I’m grateful to council member Lander,” Alexiou said, “but his process was not democratic, and not inclusive. It was downright misleading. We never had a chance to voice our concerns.”

The “take back” meeting–held at the upscale 501 Union Street venue at Alexiou’s expense–brought forth a range of ideas from local residents.

“Developers are easy to convince of you have a strong community vision,” said Ethan Kent, a Cobble Hill resident of 15 years. He encouraged other residents to come forward with their proposals, and come forward they did. Their ideas included:

  • Opposing development on the riverbanks
  • Using parking lots not suitable for residential developments (due to their proximity to water) for a range other community interests
  • A community liaison to conform developers’ activities to regulations and the community demands
  • A range of infrastructure enhancements being legally tied to any new developments
  • Leaving the canal as a contaminated sight in order to stop the spread of contaminants while warding off developers and maintain the area as a manufacturing base
  • Upgrades to the Third Avenue Bridge, an evacuation route in the case of flooding or a natural disaster
  • Preserving the beloved “Gowanus Yard” at Carroll and Bond
  • A variety of measures to encourage and preserve “small scale” manufacturing
  • Communities being allowed (or required by law) to vote on any rezoning, similar to the participatory budget process
  • Reforming the “environmental impact study” process, forbidding developers from hiring companies who perform such reviews
  • Creating an environmental protection overlay district in the neighborhood
  • Expanding the historic / landmarked districts in the area, and surrounding areas
  • Creating an advocacy group or “tenant union” to prevent residents from being evicted
  • A comprehensive hydrological study of the land where massive developments are proposed
  • A review of the water flows to redraw the zoning and development allocations
  • Fixing infrastructure without making it contingent on future residential development
  • A moratorium on new development until infrastucture and public housing concerns were addressed
  • Using local schools and science curriculum to engage children and the public on the issues involved
  • Fixing abandoned buildings before new construction could be embarked upon
  • Coordinating with the 76th Precinct to ensure sufficient policing is in place for an influx of residents
  • Designating the area as a special economic manufacturing zone
  • A mixed-use zoning plan that allocated the first few floors of a new residential structure to manufacturing

Natalie Loney from the EPA was on hand to discuss the current superfund cleanup process of the Gowanus Canal. She described the history of the canal, originally a creek that was filled in to allow the transport of goods and services. But with no environmental regulations at the time, businesses polluted away. After a remedial investigation and feasibility study several years ago, her Agency determined the best course of action involved dredging portions of the canal and capping others. Since they have identified the site as polluted, they are now required to clean it up, Loney said (eliminating some of the plans to use the contamination as a “buffer” against developers). The question is not whether to clean up the area, Loney advised, but how.

“Contamination goes deep and down to the native sediment of the 1860s,” Loney said. But even with dredging, tanks will be needed to catch the “first flush” of sewage runoff that often enters the canal, polluting it anew. The $506 million cost of environmental restoration will be born by some thirty-plus entities identified as culprits (including National Grid, Exxon, and the City of New York), and the federal superfund will step in to cover any shortfalls. The first part of the canal should be cleaned by 2016, with successive sections improved on a three-year recurring basis.

The meeting went a tad too long, debating all the points raised but then running out of time to do so, with Alexiou suddenly stepping into the shoes of a Lander-like appeaser of the hard to disquiet masses. Debate raged over whether to extend such meetings, in person or online, and a name change to “Gowanus Preservation Society,” and potentially inviting (or not inviting) the Lander group, “Bridging Gowanus,” to join them on future endeavors.

“There’s wine at the end of this,” Alexiou said as an attempt at levity when the crowd grew a bit raucous.

Still, some critics were hard to win over.

“I don’t see much difference between this and Lander’s meetings,” one attendee said. “There was little discussion of affordable housing, and there are already built in governmental checks, things like 311, that we’re overlooking.”

Catherine Zinnell, the brave soul who appeared on behalf of council member Lander, was gracious and responsive, despite being the sacrificial lamb with repeated barbs directed her way. But Zinnell explained that Lander simply disagreed with Alexiou’s interpretation of the options faced by the community going forward, and offered the ULURP process a possible mechanism (not mentioned by the crowd) to ensure fairness by developers.

Ultimately, due to time constraints, the group was forced to adjourn and place the list of proposed ideas online for further discussion at a later date, to be determined.