Monday, July 13, 2020

Gowanus Lands: Meet The Group Petitioning the City To Consider A Park On The City-Owned Public Place Site

Public Place, the six acre city-owned lot at the intersection of Smith and 5th Street adjacent to the Gowanus Canal.
Corey Smith and Mac Thayer of
Photo credits: Sean O'Shaughnessy

Perhaps you have heard of GOWANUS LANDS, a new organization led by a group of neighborhood residents who are petitioning the City to consider the development of a public park on the vacant, City-owned land along the west side of the Gowanus Canal along Smith Street?

Known as Public Place by locals, the site was the home of the former Citizens Gas Light Company's 12th Ward Gas Work Plant from the 1860s to the early 1960s. The Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP) which operated here turned coal and petroleum products into flammable gas. The site is the most polluted one along the Gowanus Canal.
When the Citizens Gas Works plant was decommissioned in the 60s, the site was given to the city 'by condemnation' as public land in 1975. Hence the name "Public Place". 

The 5.8 acre site is currently included in the overall rezoning plan for Gowanus and the City is planning on handing over the property to a team of developers for  'Gowanus Green', a mixed use development of about 950 apartments, retail spaces and a school.

However, until it is rezoned, the use of the Public Place site is restricted to this very day by a 1974 Board of Estimate ruling that severely limits its uses allowed as-of-right.
After a thorough community review process shortly after the City acquired the site, the City of New York's Planning Commission and Board of Estimate set aside the 5.8 acres "for public recreational use" on the City Map on February 27, 1974, (Calendar CP 22590).

Gowanus Lands believes that "the site is a public asset, and City Hall will decide what to do with it. If enough people say they want a park, City Hall will listen!"
The organization was formed earlier this year by Gowanus residents Mac Thayer and Corey Smith.  The two have been friends since 2012 and live in Gowanus near the Public Place site. Mac lives across the Street at Smith and 9th Street and Corey lives a little farther away closer to the BQE.

PMFA would like to introduce you to Mac and Corey and is hoping to help spread the word of their petition thoughout the Gowanus and Carroll Gardens communities.

Below are some questions and answers relating to their initiative

What is the park petition initiative?

We started the website in May to advocate for creating a public park on the vacant land along the west side of the Gowanus Canal. At the time we didn't know much about the site, so we were surprised to learn that the site was actually designated for park space in 1974.

Why are you guys interested in a park?

Mac: Personally I have lived across the street from the site for about 7 years, and so have always been curious about what is going on and why it's vacant. If you look around the neighborhood, you see that most of it is covered in concrete and buildings - there's really very little open space, and what there is is jammed into corners, or surrounded by busy streets. Parks are really important neighborhood amenities that are directly correlated with better quality of life and health outcomes. We need open space and we should prioritize it. That is something that was understood and valued in the past when they created Central Park and Prospect park, and something that is often overlooked in current times. Particularly now in dealing with COVID, it's important to prioritize open space.

Corey: Beyond my desire to lounge on some grass and kick a soccer ball around, through an environmental lens, I think the creation of a new park in the area could offer a pretty unique opportunity. I have some experience with pollinator surveys in the city, and can't help but look at new green spaces as potential bee habitat. Historically, there are around 220 species of bees found in New York City (430 in the state). The Gowanus Canal Conservancy has held an annual BioBlitz since 2017 and looking through their data, it would appear their efforts have yielded fewer than ten species (I'm sure there are more, but that's the only data currently available). It goes without saying that more habitat can lead to increased biodiversity and I imagine providing more nesting substrate and food resources could have a huge impact on the local bee fauna.

What's your vision for the park?

We started by envisioning a natural parkscape with grass, natural plants and walkways where people could walk and relax, kind of like Prospect Park. However, this is really an open neighborhood visioning process, so we've been getting great ideas from the local community. A few examples are community gardens, a dog run, even a pool! One other idea we liked was to have a summer stage at the park for drama productions and concerts for local musicians. We are really interested in hearing what everyone has to say so we encourage people to contact us on the gmail we created

Is there a petition as part of the website? How is that doing?

Yes, we created a petition on the website for people to click support if they want a park. We also send out periodic BCC updates to the email list with any news we've heard. We've actually been surprised what a positive reception it has received: we are now at about 400 signatures and growing, and a lot of people have asked how they can help which is great to see.

What is your plan with the petition? 
We are using the petition as a basis of starting dialogues with local community groups and elected officials about how to create a park on the site. So that we can say, "Hey, we think this site should be a park, and so do 400 other people in the local community, how about it?" We've had some really positive responses: for example, NYS Senator Velmanette Montgomeery's office said that the Senator is very supportive of parks and open space and looked forward to hearing more as the initiative develops. We have started to talk with other local community groups like FROGG, the CAG, Dredgers, etc. and our next step is to talking with the Community Board.

When you’re not advocating for a park, what do you do in your free time?

Frisbee! We love playing frisbee. If we get a park, we would love to play there too.

Thank you, Corey and Mac, for taking the time to talk to PMFA.

To our readers, please click to sign the petition!


Anonymous said...

Brad Lander, of course, will not mention the option of a public park, and will oppose it if he is ever questioned about why he wants "Public Place" to be given to developers for free. Just this week (, he is quoted as saying, “At this urgent and clarifying moment, if we get it right, the Gowanus neighborhood rezoning offers us an opportunity to strengthen our city’s resilience, take meaningful steps toward desegregation and racial justice, support economic recovery, and help lay the foundation for a vibrant, equitable, and sustainable future.” This statement, like Lander's Bridging Gowanus initiative, which purported to seek out local input on the future of the area, and then almost completely ignored everything locals wanted, is a nice-sounding gesture to placate citizens who are not paying attention, but which has no relation to the actual vision Lander has for the area.

Brad, how does building luxury condo towers for 20,000 people that will burden already overburdened infrastructure (sewage, transportation, schools) help towards desegregation and racial justice? What is equitable or sustainable about more luxury condos? Yes, a fraction of these units will be "affordable", but if the problem is lack of affordable housing, why not just build affordable housing? Why doesn't the city address the problems of the Gowanus area NOW (sewage, transportation, schools, unrepaired NYCHA housing), which would surely go much further towards making things equitable and sustainable, BEFORE handing over the area to developers for luxury housing, which nobody in the area needs?

chance bliss said...

two white dudes who want to convert city lands for recreational use.

i agree with the need for more open space in our neighborhoods but, historically speaking, initiatives like these tend to benefit privileged communities the most.

if they invite representation from other communities who can have a meaningful active voice in the development of the land for public use, then i'd consider supporting this initiative.

kids who live in high-density housing need places for play. families need places to gather with room for hosting large groups.

if you want to examine a case study in privilege, then look at how the high line was initially proposed and then read up on what it became; who benefited the most and who lost out. some of the people originally involved with the high line's beginnings have since expressed disappointment in the park's long-term impact.

Anonymous said...

@chance bliss: Good point. If they can broaden their circle of allies, they will have a much more meaningful voice. Maybe they could become a strong enough voice to reach some sort of compromise, where part of the land is developed and part of it becomes a nice park. Or maybe they could gain enough strength to get the whole parcel, especially now that rents are falling. Either way, it would result in more parkland.

Margaret said...

Chance Bliss, the city lands have ALREADY been designated for recreational use. That is the CURRENT status of that land. That these are "two white dudes" and that these type of visions "privileged communities at the most" is framing this effort in what some may see as a dismissive way. What we need to do as a community is to support the current designation - Frank Verderame, the Assembly Person who worked hard to obtain this designation DECADES AGO was a man of the community. He also envisioned a baseball area in this park. What could be more American? People, we need to defend here that which we ALREADY HAVE!!!

Anonymous said...

Our neighborhood needs more open space, and more park space. Let's stop Lander's plan to take that away from the community that already owns it.
I'd also encourage Gowanus Lands to read up on the gendered allocation and use of park space, so that this project can address the needs of all neighbors.
How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender Equality - Stockholm Toronto, Baltimore and Vienna offer examples of how to address a problem with public space "Inequality is spatially reinforced by design, from our systems all the way down to individual public spaces. "

Anonymous said...

Don’t we have enough parks - large ones - Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, red hook waterfront. Smaller parks - St. Mary’s Park literally across the street, Carroll Park, and other scattered through the neighborhood. Not to mention that the Public Place redevelopment is part of a larger proposal for a promenade along the Gowanus. Public Place will have green space. Not every site should be a park. If you want more open space move - we are an urban City!

Anonymous said...

10:51 Actually, statistically, the Brooklyn Borough is the most underserved of the NYC boroughs as far as parks and park land.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 10:51: Brooklyn Bridge Park is two miles away, Prospect Park is a mile and a half away. St. Mary's Park is all concrete and is underneath the subway overpass. Having green space in the CG and Gowanus neighborhoods would benefit everyone who lives nearby, particularly the Gowanus and Wyckoff Houses, for whom it would be the closest large green space.

Anonymous said...

It would be wonderful to have this land as a park with plantings favoring the natural march consisting of native spartina grasses and other plantings that are capable of breaking down the toxic materials that will remain in the land long after the NYS Brownfield remediation work.

Another good goal that could be part of the park, would be to have some green-energy collection system on the site.

This looks like a great community-driven effort to get some actuall sustainable urban planning goinging. Better late than never.

Anonymous said...

The bottom line with this proposal: it means NOTHING if the proposed Gowanus rezoning gets certified in the near future and is off to the races plowing through the ULURP approval process.

If Gowanus Lands is serious about making Public Place into a park, it needs to work to stop the proposed rezoning and be at the table from the outset in crafting a better one.