Swimming in Sludge

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Go play in the…sludge storage tank?

That’s what some Greenpoint residents hope to one day be able to say to their kids, provided they can convince their neighbors it’s a good idea to convert a sewage tank near the East River into a rec center, complete with a performance space, art gallery, rooftop cafe and a swimming pool.

“The view of the Manhattan skyline from there is spectacular and certainly will draw visitors,” insists Keith Rodan, a 20-year resident of Greenpoint and an avid proponent of the proposal, called GreenTank.

But with a developer vying to put up apartment buildings along the river just a block away, many community members hope to use the sludge tank and the small lot it sits on–which the city has already promised to the community once it stops using it in the next few years–as the bargaining chip they need to get a park along the waterfront.

“This community is surrounded by water but has no access to it,” says Christine Holowacz of the local Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee. By putting the tank on the table, she says the community might be able to win some prime riverside park space from the Bloomberg administration.

The committee’s strategy has been brewing since 1996, when the city announced plans for a $1.42 million upgrade of the Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The city Department of Environmental Protection expects to phase out use of the 800,000-gallon tank, which has stored city sewage since 1967, over the next few years. In its place, the city will build a force main to pump the sludge directly from the plant–the second largest in the nation–onto barges that cart the waste off to nearby Ward’s Island.

As part of this plan, Giuliani administration officials agreed–after much lobbying from the community board and the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee–to demolish the structure and transfer the property to the community for open space. Their real strategy behind getting the tank land: get it and then trade it for waterfront property.

Enter GreenTank. Originally dreamed up by Ron Shiffman of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Economic Development during Greenpoint’s 197-A waterfront planning process over the last decade, the proposal keeps the outside of the building–considered beautiful and historic in some circles–as is, and decontaminates and spruces up the inside to make way for a badly needed museum and recreation center. (The neighborhood does not have either.)

“It will be the most unique kind of space you’ve ever seen,” gushes architect Meta Brunzema. And the idea does have some firepower behind it. The Municipal Art Society, which played a lead role in saving Grand Central Station and old theaters and neon lights in Times Square, has raised money to hire Brunzema to study the project’s feasibility.

The results of the study are due out this fall, but members of local Community Board 1 and the Monitoring Committee hope to be bargaining for waterfront land by then. The Lumber Exchange Terminal recently signed a contract to sell its 21 acres along the East River and Newtown Creek to developer George Klein, who plans to build apartment buildings there. Dividing the lumberyard’s property are two acres of city-owned land that Lumber Exchange leases. While Klein would have the option to renew that lease for another decade, some community members hope to convince the city to permanently transfer that land and the tank property to Klein–they have no problem with housing there as long as it’s not too tall or expensive–in exchange for some of his newly acquired land along Newtown Creek.

While city officials would not comment on the prospect of a deal like that, a spokesperson at the Department of City Planning says they are reviewing rezoning possibilities along the waterfront, including Klein’s own proposal. Elizabeth Counihan of Park Tower Group, Klein’s company, says they intend to include public waterfront access for local residents in their project.

This could leave GreenTank in the lurch. But its proponents are not giving up. Rodan says that he and his cohorts hope their proposal will be a part of the negotiations between Klein and the city.

Mia Lipsit is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.