The Hot Seat: David Briggs and Anthony Deen


Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved in Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing David Briggs and Anthony Deen, the co-founders of Gowanus by Design. GbD is a Brooklyn-based urban design advocacy group focusing on the Gowanus Canal and surrounding neighborhoods.

Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in, and how’d you end up there?
Anthony Deen: We live in Carroll Gardens although since my family is from Fort Greene it doesn’t seem like much of a move. In fact, after living in L.A. for a couple of years, when my wife and I decided to start a family, I knew I’d be returning to Brooklyn, but we really fell in love with the small town vibe here in Carroll Gardens.
David Briggs: I have lived in Carroll Gardens since 1989. I moved there since I had a couple of friends who had lived there in the 1980s. The rents were lower than Manhattan ($1,100 for a two-bedroom) and it was only four stops on the F train to Manhattan.

BS: Can you talk about the beginnings of Gowanus by Design, and its mission and goals today?
DB: Anthony and I co-founded Gowanus by Design in 2009 as an organization that would report and comment on the ongoing clean up and development proposals in the Gowanus Canal neighborhood. As pro-development residents, we had (and still have) serious concerns with the city’s planning process that was underway. We supported the EPA’s designation of the canal as a Superfund site and felt it would offer a welcome pause to the rush of luxury housing development that the city was supporting with zoning variances. After the canal was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in 2010, we started asking a series of questions that could help define the framework for new development. We decided that the best forum for answering these questions would be through open design competitions.

After the jump, more on the beginnings on GbD, development planned for Gowanus, and the canal as a public asset…
We held our first design competition, “Gowanus Lowline: Connections,” last year; we had a terrific jury and over 150 people/teams registered from the United States and abroad. Since this was an ideas-based competition, we decided that our next competition should focus on a real world challenge. “Water Works” was launched this past summer and is open for registration until Nov. 12. This competition explores our protean relationship with water by challenging designers to create a year-round community and CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) treatment facility on the site of Thomas Greene Park. The pool at the west end of the park sits above one of three former manufacturing gas plant sites in the neighborhood that are under the control of National Grid. Although not all parties have agreed to this, it is our position that the pool must be removed in order to properly remediate the extensive coal tar contamination under the pool. Our provocative program is intended to start a dialogue about how a new community facility, that is modeled on the recently re-opened McCarren Park in Williamsburg, can serve the Gowanus residents while supporting a facility that treats CSOs that have been redirected from the head of the canal. Our goal is to take the results of these and future competitions and advocate for better community services in the neighborhood’s redevelopment.

BS: What makes Gowanus such a unique neighborhood in New York City, especially through the lens of urban design?
AD: Brownfields in general are the wild, wild west of urban development. Given the necessary transition from industrial to residential usage they become a kind of urban design laboratory. At the same time, due to low population density the Mayor’s office and the planning department run roughshod over these communities, acquiescing to almost any developer demand. This has lead to such debacles as the 4th Avenue corridor here in Brooklyn.
DB: The 21st century will be the century of cities. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban centers and it is expected that it will increase to 70 percent by 2050. As pressure mounts on cities to develop land that was previously considered “undevelopable,” new design and planning strategies will be required to handle the legacy of 20th century urban industry. The Gowanus Canal offers a perfect model as a beta-test for some of these strategies — restoring a tidal estuary and using it to stitch together the surrounding neighborhoods; creating a divergent mixed-use, mixed-income community that localizes as much of its industry as possible; managing the effects of inevitable climate change on low-lying neighborhoods; linking to the greenway/blueway network that is developing around the city; and using remediation as an economic opportunity.

BS: Obviously the canal Superfund status changed the course of not just the waterway, but the entire neighborhood and community. How has the Superfund status changed resident’s ideas about the reclamation or ownership of the canal, of its potential as a public space?
AD: I don’t think the Superfund designation has changed the community’s point of view on planning or the neighborhood. Superfund status has rather empowered the community, giving them a sense that their voices are being heard and giving them a tool to make sure the City honors its commitments.
DB: There is a wide variety of opinion on this topic, but in our view the canal has the potential to be a very valuable and unique public asset. Our model is the High Line park, which took a derelict elevated train track and turned it into a destination point that has increased surrounding property values. This can be a double-edged sword since developers reap the economic benefits while not always considering what is best for the community. Residents, schools, community services, retail, cultural institutions, manufacturing and small businesses should feel invested in a future Gowanus Canal park, not just as a fixed public space, but as part of a living, breathing ecology that inspires a rich, vibrant urban neighborhood.

BS: It’s big news that a developer is seeking to build on the Toll Brothers’ old site. And of course, Whole Foods is coming. How to best develop in an area like the Gowanus Canal? Is there a way to successfully balance private development with the public waterway?
AD: GbD is pro development and we support both projects. What we feel is missing though is a master plan to guide the development of the entire Gowanus watershed. Currently the City is using spot zoning techniques to test the development waters and as we’ve seen before this simply doesn’t work. The Gowanus needs a comprehensive plan that addresses infrastructure issues while also setting guidelines for responsible development that respects the existing community.

BS: What do you predict for the future of the Gowanus neighborhood? What’s next for GbD?
AD: Gowanus by Design will continue to focus on developing models for better and more responsive development for the communities adjacent in the Gowanus Canal. In action this means consulting with local community groups, running competitions and challenging our elected officials.
DB: A lot of small industry has moved to the Gowanus neighborhood in the last few years. This is a fascinating time since it harkens back to Soho in the 1960s before it became ultra-hip and expensive. I look forward to seeing how Gowanus can maintain this texture and identity once the cleanup starts. For GbD, we will probably organize another competition in 2014 — I already have a site in mind!

BS: Finally, your favorites: favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, favorite Brooklyn building or development, and favorite space in Gowanus in particular.
DB: Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill Towers, Carroll Street Bridge.
AD: Now that’s a tough one to answer!

3 Comment

  • Seems ridiculous to call yourself a design firm and support the ginormous Lightstone project, which doesn’t fit in contextually to the neighborhood or the canal. You can pro development but anti-Lightstone -surely there are much better projects to showcase the canal.

  • I’m pro-development, too, but I’m anti-crappy, out of scale, way too dense development, which is what the Lightstone project is. I was really so surprised to read your answer to that question, actually. I love the idea of Gowanus as some sort of Low Line, but how can that work if Lightstone makes their huge outpost in the middle of the waterway? And just what officials are you planning on challenging since it sounds like you have been supportive of everything that comes along? Where do you guys draw the line?

    • Thank you for reading the article and expressing your concerns. You both raise good points and within our organization there is disagreement on the Lightstone proposal since it is not a very inspired design, too big, and there is a lack of infrastructure to support it. We do support development at the site, but it must be within the context of appropriate city planning, better advocacy from our local public officials, and a willingness by the developers to sit down with community groups and show some flexibility. Unfortunately, we did not receive a response from Lightstone after we called and emailed them requesting a meeting. We are recruiting new members for our organization and would love to have you join us at our next meeting. I can be reached at dbriggs@gowanusbydesign.org.