The very thing that turned the Gowanus Canal from a fresh, oyster-filled creek into an oily “Lavender Lake” may be the thing that prevents it from going back to the good old days.
As both the city and private developers prepare to build residential housing along the banks of Brooklyn’s eerie canal, preservationists are trying to block such redevelopment by getting the canal zone “protected” as a historic district.
“It would be nice to try to preserve a sense of that history for the canal,” said Marilyn Oliva, a member of several Community Board 6 committees.
The Army Corps of Engineers put such hope within reach. In 2004, the Corps determined that several canal zone buildings and bridges are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places — including the Carroll Street bridge (already a city landmark); a pumping station on Butler Street; and the Bowne Grain Storehouse, a 19th-century warehouse on Smith and Creamer streets.
Currently, none of those structures are endangered by development plans, but Toll Brothers, which wants to build hundreds of units of housing, commercial space and a public esplanade, has already leveled one building eligible for historic recognition — the Foreman Blades Lumber warehouse on Second Street.
“People who live in that immediate area want to see some of that heritage preserved,” said Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors.
Activists admitted that there was some irony in trying to retain the current polluted state of the canal by seeking protection for the industrial buildings that hastened its demise during the 19th and 20th centuries. But they said it’s possible to separate the buildings themselves from the messy business that went on inside.
“They are perfect specimens of what industrial buildings looked like at the start of the Industrial Revolution,” said Betty Stoltz, a member of Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus. “Think of it this way: I don’t love everything the Church does, but I don’t want to see churches destroyed.”
With the industrialists and their polluting antics long gone, residents are now directing their ire at developers who threaten the historical buildings. But developers say that a side benefit of their plans to build along the canal, once celebrated for dinner-plate-sized oysters, will be improvements to water quality and public access.