There might be two outs in the bottom of the ninth with an 0-and-2 count, but it’s not over until it’s over. At least that’s what Frank Verderame wants the city to remember in this last inning of the game that will eventually determine the fate of the former gas manufacturing plant at Smith and Fifth streets, a long-vacant site now slated for residential redevelopment.
Verderame, a former Carroll Gardens Assemblyman (and Sacred Heart third baseman — hence the baseball metaphors) has spent the last 30 years waiting for someone to step up to the plate and make something of the 5.8-acre canal-front site, officially known as the “Public Place for Recreational Purposes.” Specifically, he has been waiting for baseball fields.
Verderame was at the City Planning public hearing in 1978 that ended with an official recommendation that 70-percent of the land be set aside for a sports complex — and he was there months later when that plan by foiled by insurance companies, who refused to cover the site because of the contaminated soil.
“I don’t know if I’ll live to see anything built there,” the 77-year-old Little League veteran once told me, following the unveiling of the city’s latest plan for the site, a vision that would put 500–600 units of mixed-income housing in several mid-sized towers, a public waterfront esplanade and a community facility on the lot, which would undergo an extensive two-year cleanup before anything was built.
Some call the wait a rain delay, others call it bureaucratic bungling. But this week, the seventh inning stretch ended when five developers went public with bids for the land, responses to a request for proposals issued by the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, and a decision is expected this month.
The move forward has put Verderame back in his activist jersey with a demand that the city clean the land before a decision is made on how it is used.
“We’ve made plans before that couldn’t be done because the land wasn’t suitable,” said Verderame. “How are they so sure before the cleanup is done that it will be safe for families to live there? They are putting the cart before the horse.”
Other community leaders disagree with Verderame. The cleanup will happen thoroughly, regardless of plans for subsequent development, according to Bob Zuckerman of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation.
“Cleanup is the first priority,” he said.
But Verderame’s team includes a group called Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus, or FROGG. The environmentalist group opposes the residential redevelopment of the site because of the risks — real and perceived — associated with living atop contaminated land. And they are prepared to raise a stink over it worthy of the sulphur-smelling Gowanus.
“We are still talking about land and water that are severely contaminated,” said FROGG member Linda Mariano. “I call the city’s development plan resisting reality and we are prepared to fight it.”
Ariella Cohen is a freelance writer.
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