Built on muck - Contaminated Gowanus clouds future development

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Gowanus Green may be the future at Public Place, a massive, city-owned site along the canal, but some locals are still focusing on its polluted past.

“I still have doubts that this site can be remediated,” said Community Board 6 Landmarks/Land Use committee member Roy Sloane. “This is one of the most polluted sites to ever have housing on it—and that only raises the level of concern.

“We have an obligation to the entire community,” he added.

The property was once home to several manufactured gas plants, facilities that converted coal to fuel used to light lamps and heat homes.

Coal tar, which can be hazardous to human health, has been found 150 feet below the ground surface.

“I am not going to support this unless I am absolutely sure it is safe,” Sloane continued. “If one person gets cancer or gets sick, I will never be able to live with myself,” Sloane said.

The ambitious, $300 million project on the 5.8-acre site, located at the corner of Smith and Fifth Streets, calls for the construction of 774 units of housing in nine buildings whose heights will range from six to 12 stories.

The project’s development team came before the committee last week to provide an overview of the project, which will represent one of the city’s largest affordable housing developments on publicly owned land.

“Your design is going ahead prior to the completion of the clean-up,” committee member Pauline Blake said. “How do we know it will be clean enough?”

Michelle de la Uz, the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a developer of affordable housing and member of the Gowanus Green development team, said community goals of a cleaned, safe site “absolutely align” with those of the developers.

Under state supervision, National Grid will perform the site’s clean-up, which is expected to take two years.

She added that there are examples nationwide of manufactured gas plant sites being remediated to meet residential standards.

The rest of the team consists of the Hudson Companies, the Bluestone Organization, and Jonathan Rose Companies. The project’s design will be led by Rogers Marvel Architects, and includes landscape architecture by West 8 and Starr Whitehouse.

Michael Wadman, a principal with Hudson Affordable Housing, an affiliate of Hudson Companies Inc., said building size will range from six to 12 stories, with the tallest structures located in the center of the site, respecting the surrounding community. The entire project is set back 70 feet from the canal, where a two-acre park is also planned, he added.

The project is touted as being a model of eco- friendliness, with 100 percent of stormwater retained on site, and a LEED neighborhood development designation. LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is typically a measure of the environmental soundness of a single building.

Over 65,000 square feet of community and retail space is also planned. Construction may begin in 2012, officials said.

“This is not going to happen overnight. You’re looking at a decades-long project,” said Alan Bell, a senior partner and founder of the Hudson Companies.

He said the company, now located in Manhattan, was located near the canal for 20 years.

“We love the neighborhood and we want to be part of it for the foreseeable future,” he said.

The project will be subject to an environmental review, followed by a rigorous public review, called a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), with advisory oversight by the community board, as well as review by the borough president, City Planning Commission, City Council, and the mayor.

Bob Levine, the chair of the Landmarks Committee, said that there exist “too many variables” to welcome the plan carte blanche.

“I’m with Roy, and I’m saying, ‘wait a minute,’” Levine said. “You’re putting the cart before the horse.”

“I’m uncomforta­ble,” he continued. “It’s not a question of if we like you—it’s whether we feel comfortable [enough] to have people live there.”

The project will cost close to $300 million, much of it publicly funded. The development team will invest $20 million, money earmarked for infrastructure improvements that includes the construction of a 25,000-square-foot wellness center.

Gowanus Green is expected to be financed in part through the New York City Housing Development Corporation’s low-income Affordable Marketplace Program, in addition to subsidies from the New York City Housing Trust Fund, part of the Mayor’s $7.5 billion, 165,000-unit new Housing Marketplace Plan.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development is guiding the project, and will be a co-applicant once it wends its way through ULURP.

De la Uz said planning must begin early, precisely because the site offers complex challenges, particularly those posed by contamination. She said the team will be held to “the highest standard possible.”

And the team could amend its plans, depending on how remediation proceeds. “The design may well change,” Wadman said.

Still, early skepticism remains.

“What happens if something doesn’t go right during remediation?” wondered committee member Jerry Armer. “It’s sort of like buying a pig in a poke.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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