Monday, December 04, 2017

As The World Turns In Gowanus: A Tale Of Eminent Domain, Development Pressure, Environmental Challenges, And The Risk Of Losing A Neighborhood's Uniqueness

Nothing is simple in Gowanus. This small neighborhood wedged between Park Slope, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens has the ominous distinction of being home to an 1.8 mile man-made canal that is one of the most polluted sites in the United States, which landed it on the Federal Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list in 2010.  Besides being polluted, New York City has been allowing raw sewage to spill into the waterway during heavy downpours for decades and continues to do so.
Raw sewage floating on the Gowanus Canal

Then there is the fact that most of Gowanus has been declared a Flood Zone 'A' by the  Federal Emergency Management Agency, which means mandatory evacuation during hurricanes.  But no superstorms are needed for floods, as flooding occurs on a regular basis even during moderate downpours.
3rd Street Bridge in Gowanus after heavy rain
Flooding is a reality for many Gowanus residents.

Lastly, Gowanus has been targeted for development. A real estate frenzy has been unleashed by Mayor deBlasio and Councilmen Lander and Levin, when they began pushing to rezone the area from mostly manufacturing to mixed-use, which would allow more residential developments similar to the recently completed Lightstone Group rental towers along the canal. This resulted in speculative investments by developers such as Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and others.  In anticipation of the rezoning, manufacturing lots in the area have significantly increased in value, which has forced many manufacturing tenants out of the area.
Lightstone Group's 700-unit high rise rental along the Gowanus Canal

This perfect storm has pitted not-for-profit organizations, which have taken money from developers and our elected officials and these same elected officials who envision a shiny new Gowanus neighborhood against true civic associations, and neighbors who want to hold on to at least part of its history and uniqueness.

As of right now, The EPA Superfund Clean-Up of the toxic Canal seems to be on track.  A dredging and capping pilot study is about to begin in the 4th Street basin. The result will enable the EPA to finalize the design for the environmental clean-up of the entire waterway. The actual clean-up is slated to start in 2020 at the head of the Canal.

The re-zoning of Gowanus has picked up momentum.  From 2013 to 2015, Councilmen Lander held "Bridging Gowanus," a series of curated community planning meetings to help "shape a sustainable, livable, and inclusive future for the Gowanus neighborhood." At one of the planning meetings, the public was given a highly slanted exercise to "weigh the hard choices of density and development."
Predictably, the resulting report claimed that "nearly three-quarters of the participants who chose this scenario expressed openness to buildings of more than 10 stories (with a distribution of opinion spread about equally from 8 to 18 stories)."
How very convenient for developers.
Councilman Brad Lander at one of the Bridging Gowanus meetings, 
promising an 'inclusive and transparent process"

By late 2016, the NYC Department of City Planning launched the Gowanus Neighborhood Planning Study to develop a planning and land-use framework for the Gowanus neighborhood. Here again, local residents were asked to participate through a series of workshops. Though many in the community clearly asked City Planning to consider establishing "managed retreat from the Gowanus flood zone", the recommendation never made it into the final presentation given by the Department of City Planning in October 2017.
The reason? According to DCP:
"This interest was not mutually shared among working group members. It conflicts with core objectives established within the Gowanus Study process, including promoting investment in the creation of commercial and arts uses, housing and continued industrial use on canal-side properties."
Currently, DCP is working on a Gowanus rezoning pan, which they will present to the community in  early 2018.
No doubt, new zoning will allow for lots of 18 story high-rises along the canal in a flood zone.

New York City Department Of City Planning Gowanus Neighborhood Study
City Planning's Winston Von Engel with Brad Lander at a 
Gowanus Neighborhood meeting, October 2017

By far the most contentious issue in Gowanus right now is the placement of the larger of two Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) and storm water retention tanks.

As part of the Gowanus Canal Superfund Record of Decision, a legally binding blueprint for the environmental clean-up of the canal, EPA has mandated that New York City construct an eight million gallon tank in the upper portion of the canal, and a four million gallon tank in the middle of the canal as a control measure meant to significantly reduce overall contaminated solid discharges to the waterway during heavy rain events.
Looking at 234 Butler Street and 242 Nevins Street from the Gowanus Canal Side
Double D Pool at Thomas Greene Park

EPA Region 2 suggested placing the 8-million gallon tank underneath the Double D pool at Thomas Greene Park near Nevins Street. The Agency reasoned that the pool needs to be removed anyway because it sits on the former  Fulton Municipal Manufactured Gas Plant which needs to be remediated. Also, the parkland is already owned by the City, which would save the acquisition cost.

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection on the other hand, prefers to site the 8-million gallon tank on three privately-owned sites along the canal, adjacent to the park. In early 2016, an Administrative Settlement Agreement between EPA and New York City grants the City the opportunity to locate the tank on its preferred 'canal side' location. However, the order comes with a strict timeline which requires that the City must acquire the three sites by 2020. EPA will force the City to pivot to the Thomas Greene site if this deadline is not met.

To avoid delays if this should occur, EPA is requiring DEP to prepare parallel tank and head house designs for both sites.

The City's plan relies on the taking of two privately owned sites, 234 Butler Street and 242 Nevins Street, by eminent domain if necessary. A third site, 270 Nevins Street will also be seized and then leased by the City for staging purposes. The taking by eminent domain will displace a fair number of businesses, including Eastern Effects Studios, where the popular "The Americans" television show is filmed. it will also displace Spoke The Hub, a popular not-for-profit, which has had a presence in Gowanus for decades.

In DEP's Capital Plan for 2016 to 2019, $510 million was added "to secure land, design two CSO tanks and construct one of the two planned CSO tanks adjacent to the Gowanus Canal." That sum rivals the estimated amount for the entire Superfund clean-up of the canal and buys the community only ONE tank.

Obviously, inflating the cost of the 8-million gallon tank at the top of the canal through needless land acquisition doesn't concern Councilman Brad Lander, who tweeted that he was "very glad to have secured the $510 million in the DEP updated capital plan."
From Councilman Brad Lander's Twitter account, March 2016

Currently, an application submitted by New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) for the acquisition of these three privately-owned parcels needed for the Gowanus CSO Facility is currently moving through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process.
Community Board 6 as already held a public hearing and voted to support the eminent domain action. The next step is to get approval from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. A public hearing was held at Brooklyn Borough Hall on November 27th. Adams will make a determination soon.

If the ULURP process goes according to the De Blasio administration, the city may have to fork over at least $70 million dollars for 242 Nevins Street and 234 Butler Street, according to a recent Crain's article.
Inna Guzenfeld, Diana Reyna and Richard Bearak of the Brooklyn Borough President's office
during ULURP hearing on eminent domain action for
Combined Sewer Overflow Tank and Facility.
Kevin Clarke of NYC DEP at ULURP hearing at Brooklyn Borough Hall
DEP's conceptual design for retention tank head house at
234 Butler Street and 242 Nevins Street

At the Brooklyn Borough President's hearing, Kevin Clarke of NYC's DEP stated that the City hopes to purchase the land as a "willing seller, willing buyer" transaction and said that the City had made the owners an offer.

"Not so," said Salvatore Tagliavia, the owner of 234 Butler Street, and of Sanitation Repairs, Inc. located on the property. At a Gowanus Canal Community Advisory meeting the very next day. Kevin Clarke again claimed that "the City has made offers to the two property owners."

"I would like to disagree," Tagliavia. "I am the owner of one of these properties. All I hear DEP say is that they want to do this and they want to do that, but I have not been approached on any level as far as relocation of my employees, my tenants and the not-for-profit, Spoke The Hub, that is located in my building." He added: "I think I speak for the other two owners. The only thing that we have received is a letter stating that they intend to make an offer and that they intend to acquire the property."

Tagliavia has made clear that he is not a willing seller. He had intended to sign a 100-year lease agreement with real estate development firm Alloy, so that his property could remain in his family for future generations.
Salvatore Tagliavia and his wive Lena, owners of 234 Butler Street, 
at the November Gowanus Canal CAG meeting.

Tagliavia's property happens to also be home to the iconic 'City of New York Water Supply Gowanus Distribution Station.' The charming brick structure, which bears the neighborhood name in terra cotta and sports a medallion showing a windmill, will probably be destroyed if the City acquires the site. Yet, it is of historic significance.

Members of the community are asking DEP to incorporate the building into the CSO tank and proposed head house facility on the site.

They have been backed by Community Board 6, which asked DEP to "consider an alternative design to save the historic structure" as part of their support of the eminent domain action.

More support comes from the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which wrote in October 2017:"Based on our review of the project details to date, it appears feasible to retain and incorporate the historic former Gowanus Station Building (234) Butler Street into the project. This building which has a prominent street presence on the corner and the very edge of the city’s preferred site, has overreaching significance on the National Register eligible Gowanus Historic District. Its demolition would adversely affect both the building and the National Register eligible Gowanus Canal Historic District. To destroy this intact, architecturally distinctive example of Brooklyn’s civic and industrial heritage would be a disservice to the Gowanus neighborhood and to the city as a whole.”
The Gowanus Station Building at 234 Butler at risk.

Poor Gowanus! So many pressures on such a vulnerable neighborhood. For developers, Gowanus is a dream come true: they have been able to buy low and will profit tremendously as soon as the area is rezoned.  Our politicians are willing to ignore the fact that the area is a flood plain and will always be threatened.
New York City, which has used the Gowanus Canal as an open sewer for decades and opposed the nomination of the canal as an EPA Superfund because it knew that it would be named as a major polluter, is now throwing crazy money at the problem by insisting on building the 8 million gallon CSO tank on private land, instead of City owned land.
There is a real risk of losing everything that is special about Gowanus in the rush to rezone.  The speed of change has accelerated of late and will increase in the next year or two as the rezoning gets pushed through.
When it comes time to attend the public meetings related to the rezoning, I hope you will all join me in voicing our opinions about the future of the neighborhood. If we don't collectively fight for Gowanus, the decision will be made by others.

You may want to start by sending an email to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams before December 15, to strongly oppose demolition of the historic Gowanus Water Supply Building at Butler and Nevins Streets.  His email address is


Anonymous said...

Brad has been a councilmember for...8 years? And will be for another 4 more? Through an historic rise in housing prices and a desperate need for new housing units ANYWHERE in the 5 boroughs, and he has managed to put off a rezoning of Gowanus all this time. Housing crisis? What housing crisis?

How much more anti-development and pro-existing home owner do you need him to be?

Triada Samaras said...

Katia: This a masterful article, one of your very best ever! The up-zoning story here in Carroll Gardens/Gowanus is repeated in other "bulls-eyed" neighborhoods all over NYC with lies piled upon lies given to the public beforehand. Visit the NYC BSA for proof. "Affordable housing" typically is the rally cry for developers (and politicians)who can use that nice sounding phrase to build even HIGHER and DENSER! buildings than if there was "no affordable housing". But there are never nearly enough ACTUAL affordable housing units built. And, there is ALWAYS too little thought given to the impacts of adding large populations to existing neighborhoods without properly considering available infrastructure: hospitals, schools, roadways, evacuation routes etc. Typically residents of these "bulls-eyed neighborhoods" have no ability to participate in a proper dialogue about the future of their own communities and are harassed as NIMBY's when they ask (or demand) to have a voice. Democracy" Hell no, it isn't!

Local politicians are usually expertly "glib" and "vague" and "general" (or worse) as they are beholden to the developers for their campaign contributions but can not admit this to their constituents. Even worse: Up-zoning also pushes out local residents, many of whom get priced out of their own neighborhoods causing gentrification and homogenization, not diversity and opportunity for all. Anyone can read: Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning ... One of the contributors is our good friend and former activist in Williamsburg Phil DePaolo. This book is already in its 2nd printing for a reason.

But I digress....The zoning issue here in CG/Gowanus is not the only issue. The environmental consequences of up-zoning in not only a flood zone, but a Federal Superfund site is sheer madness. Those of us who have lived near the Gowanus Canal for many years know the truth about the flooding: the contaminants, the chemicals, the stench and the slowly rising water levels thanks to climate change. Are the recent hurricanes no warning to us? Then perhaps we should take another look at Sandy:

What I can tell you as a witness to that Hurricane and as one who photographed Bond Street during the flooding: No one would want their children anywhere near (!) the stench, chemicals, and general filth (sewer overflows) that flooded that entire area on that night. A sickening petroleum stench mixed with God only knows what else made one's eyes sting and one's stomach churn that evening. I watched in utter disbelief as the Gownaus Canal water crossed over Bond St so easily...and began a slow creep up 2nd st. Even worse, I saw our community "Evacuation Route" (Third Street over the canal) was completely submerged with cars floating in the pitch black and oily water. After shooting photos, I ran home to try to shower off that madness. What else can I say?

Developers and Greed and what I like to call "Monkey Business" seem to triumph over all else these days which must be why Jared Kushner owns property here and why Paul Manafort bought a brownstone here.

Katia said...

One of the finest comments ever left on PMFA. Thank you for this, Triada

Triada Samaras said...

I am honored for such a distinction Katia.

Rose M said...

Thanks so much for this succinct and well written research.