Overlapping challenges for the Canal do not have easy solutions: Building a surge barrier will keep stormwater out, but some worry that barrier could restrict the flushing of the canal that's critical to improving water quality.

Jennifer Hudon

Overlapping challenges for the Canal do not have easy solutions: Building a surge barrier will keep stormwater out, but some worry that barrier could restrict the flushing of the canal that's critical to improving water quality.

The city’s second Gowanus Neighborhood Study meeting, while focused on matters of sustainability and climate resiliency, couldn’t avoid a host of other questions from audience members, including whether a potential upzoning of the area would lead to displacement and what the plan would do for NYCHA residents.

Gowanus, which has for several years engaged in a planning process lead by Councilmember Brad Lander, is one of the latest neighborhoods to be selected by the mayor for a study that could lead to a rezoning as part of the administration’s affordable housing plan.

Thursday’s meeting was held at Wyckoff Gardens, a public-housing development that NYCHA has selected as one of the first sites where it plans to lease land to a developer to build a mix of market-rate and rent-restricted housing. Former Wyckoff tenant association president Charlene Nimmons brought her concerns about so-called “infill development” to the forefront, saying that tenants “do not want the buildings to be built on our parking lots,” and saying she’d heard Wyckoff would be left out of the larger neighborhood planning process. Department of City Planning officials said the latter was not true, and that Wyckoff Gardens residents and their concerns would be central to the crafting of a neighborhood plan for the area.

Concerns about the process

Sabine Aronowsky, a local resident and community development consultant at the Fifth Avenue Committee, called on the city to do more outreach to tenants of private landlords and to local business owners.

“We are some of the most threatened people because of this rezoning, because of the increases in our rents, our leases,” she said.

Another resident wanted to know whether infrastructure improvements would lead to jobs for public housing residents, and asked why DCP’s planners were making a living off the planning process and not residents of Wyckoff Gardens.

“We are supposed to be making salaries for this too!” she said.

Brooklyn Department of City Planning director Winston Von Engel responded by encouraging her to become involved in the planning process, a reply that audibly irritated some members of the audience. He also emphasized that “nothing has been decided”—not even a much-expected rezoning.

Local elected officials tried to assure residents that the city was embarking on a true community-driven process, one in which concerns about displacement would be taken with utmost seriousness.

“That was a developer driven process,” said Councilmember Stephen Levin, when one resident asked what made the city’s Gowanus study different from the meetings for the Barclay Center development project spearheaded by Forest City Ratner. “This is a city project with the community, that came out of the community’s desires.”

Levin also acknowledged the devastating effect that Hurricane Sandy had on public housing, and said it was vital that the city craft a plan to ensure the area was prepared for climate change. He expressed deep concern over the news that president-elect Donald Trump had selected climate-denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and appointed Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—and said he hoped the new administration wouldn’t rescind the funds that the Obama administration had allocated for repairs in public housing developments affected by Sandy, including $100 million for Gowanus Houses.

“We can’t always count on the federal government to be there standing by our side and this has very real life impacts, because the next time there is going to be a large flood like Sandy….we need to be prepared, ” he said.

A mix of environmental concerns

A variety of environmental issues are at play in the Gowanus area, including ensuring the area is protected from climate change, repairing damage from Sandy and cleaning up the contaminated canal and the brownfield sites on its banks. City, state, and federal projects are already underway in the area to address these issues.

As part of the federal Superfund program, the EPA has begun cleaning debris out of the canal, and in 2017 will begin dredging the toxic sludge at the canal’s bottom. The city also plans to obtain properties at the northeast portion of the canal, through purchase or eminent domain, to site a sewage retention tank. If the city cannot do so by 2020, the EPA will require the city to site the tank at Thomas Greene Park—but a city official said at a November meeting that sale negotiations were underway and going well. The city has also repaired the canal’s flushing tunnel and is working on installing high-level storm sewers.

On resiliency, the city is taking several steps, including updating the city’s building codes and flood proofing Gowanus infrastructure. It has also completed a study on the possibility of creating a storm surge barrier—a high gate that can be closed in the event of a storm—at the mouth of the Gowanus. Though some environmentalists fear that a storm barrier could negatively affect water quality and pose other problems, the city plans to recommend a barrier to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Such a barrier could take years to build, and some attendees at the meeting expressed concern about Gowanus’s lack of an emergency plan should another storm hit immediately. A representative from the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management told City Limits that OEM is about to release a manual that describes how communities can craft emergency preparedness plans, and hopes to assist communities that want to design their own.

With the canal’s banks in a flood zone, an intense debate is also sure to follow regarding how much new development is appropriate along its shore. Local activist Marlene Donnelly questions whether it’s a good idea to upzone the canal for higher density or use state taxpayer money to help property owners remediate their land for development, and says the shores should be used for green infrastructure that can absorb flooding.

“That makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways. However, that’s not the political economy we live in,” says Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. She says she thinks zoning can be used to ensure that if there must be development it is done smartly, with buildings constructed at higher elevations.

The Department of City Planning is about to establish community working groups to begin exploring the topics of Resiliency and Sustainability, Public Realm, Housing, Arts and Culture, and Industry and Economic Development. Anyone interested in committing to a working group can contact gowanus@planning.nyc.gov.