Locals Envision Park Instead of Affordable Housing at Contaminated City-Owned Gowanus Green Site

Rendering via Justin Gallagher

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A group of Gowanus open space advocates are pushing to halt the city’s plans to build housing on a polluted brownfield site next to the toxic Gowanus Canal, saying city builders should turn the six-acre lot into a park instead.

“I think there’s a big push to densify and I think, if we’ve learned anything from COVID, we need to think about how we build our cities and how we focus on open space,” said Mac Thayer, who lives across the street from the site near Smith and 5th streets.

Thayer co-founded the group Gowanus Lands with fellow local Corey Smith, and the duo recently released renderings for their proposed park that would be constructed in place of the government’s current plans — which call for a 950-unit housing complex dubbed Gowanus Green that would be erected after state environmental organizations oversee a cleanup of the toxic site.

map gowanus

Image via Justin Gallagher

Their aspirational illustration shows the canal-front space covered in fields of grass sloping toward the water, with trees, winding paths, benches, and park goers milling about on the oasis abutting the highly polluted canal.

“The renderings are really more of a first concept, we’re just trying to spark people’s imagination and give them a sense of what it could be,” Thayer said. “We’ve had a lot of ideas come in. People have suggested dog runs, farming or community gardens — we’ve had one person suggest an above-ground pool.”

The city has planned to develop the publicly owned lot — which housed a gas works plant until the 1960s — since the Michael Bloomberg administration, most recently relaunching the project as part of the impending neighborhood-wide rezoning late last year.

The gas company that operated the plant years ago was consumed by modern-day National Grid, and in 2019, the utility company was tasked with a two-year state-supervised cleanup of the soil to get toxic coal tar out of the ground in an effort to make the place safe to live on.

gowanus green

The city proposal for the site. Rendering via Hudson Companies

The proposed joint scheme by the departments of Housing and Preservation and City Planning would add some 2,000 residents to the area, housed in a mix of rentals and condos, 70 percent of which would be affordable housing and 30 percent of which would be market rate, according to Hudson Companies, one of the developers. Varying in height between nine and 28 stories tall, the buildings would be located next to brownstone Carroll Gardens — one of the priciest nabes in the borough.

Working on the project along with the city and Hudson Companies is Fifth Avenue Committee, Bluestone Organization and Jonathan Rose Companies. The designer is Rogers Marvel Architects, along with landscape architects Starr Whitehouse and West 8.

The plans also call for creation of a new school, retail space along Smith Street, an extension of Luquer Street, and a city-funded strip of parkland along the waterfront.

However, the long-delayed project is waiting on the EPA cleanup of the canal, a Superfund site, and also needs to go through its own rezoning and public hearing process to OK the industrial site for residential use — and the site needs its own pollution remediation as well.

Thayer said he’s collected more than 700 signatures for the city to consider the park plan as an alternative.

Spokespeople from both city agencies noted that officials have crafted their plan for the site and the larger neighborhood rezoning after years of input by residents and that the schemes address a diverse set of local needs, including more affordable housing, a 500-seat school, and a 1.5-acre waterfront park.

“Affordable housing and open space are two essential aspects of the Gowanus Neighborhood Plan,” said DCP spokesman Joe Marvilli in a statement. “Gowanus Green will provide this community with a new neighborhood waterfront park, affordable homes and commercial space – responding to multiple urgent needs in this neighborhood while reconnecting the community to the Canal and helping to create a more vibrant future for Gowanus.”

Some locals opposed to the development have long advocated for a park instead of the housing cluster, citing worries of overburdening the area’s infrastructure and public transit, along with concerns of housing people and a school on top of a historically-polluted site.

Map via Hudson Companies

Map via Hudson Companies

Local Councilman Brad Lander has voiced support for the affordable housing development, but could not immediately be reached for comment on Gowanus Lands’s proposal.

The Environmental Protection Agency also plans to use the waterfront site to transfer contaminated sediment from the canal bed between barges as part of their Superfund Cleanup slated to start in the fall.

Thayer said Gowanus Lands is not steadfast against housing development on the site, but he wanted to add the group’s proposals to the many city and advocacy organizations that have been hashing out what to do with the space over the years.

“Our group is certainly not against development,” he said. “We have great respect for the existing players that have advanced proposals for the Public Place site; we are seeking to respectfully add our voice to the conversation in accordance with the public process.”

Editor’s note: A version of this story ran on Brownstoner sister site Brooklyn Paper. Click here to see the original story.

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