Gowanus Residents Question the Most Polarizing Issue of the Canal Cleanup

Photo by Susan De Vries

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If there is one issue around the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal on which residents cannot agree, it is the location of the combined sewage overflow tanks.

This was evident Monday night at a public hearing called by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to consider the issue and the destruction of a historic building, the Gowanus Station.

Photo by Craig Hubert

Photo by Craig Hubert

Adams was not present, but his office said he would soon give a recommendation for the land use approvals under ULURP based on the DEP’s proposal and the testimony of local residents. (The session, at Brooklyn Borough Hall, was videotaped.)

The EPA initially suggested that the larger of the two CSO tanks — they will absorb sewer-system overflow during storms to reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of raw sewage flowing into the waterway — would be placed under Thomas Greene Park at 225 Nevins Street.

But after community backlash, the city is considering placing the larger tank on nearby land (check out the map below).

Proposed site for the first SCO tank. Courtesy of EPA

Proposed site for the first SCO tank. Courtesy of EPA

The problem is that the second area is not owned by the city. They would have to work out a deal with the owner or seize the property by eminent domain. It includes 242 Nevins Street, 270 Nevins Street, and 234 Butler Street, where the Gowanus Station now stands.

Mario Bruno, the Assistant Commissioner for Intergovernmental Affairs for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, stressed the benefits of having the larger tank located on these privately owned sites instead of the nearby park.

“Operationally, it allows us to service the facility through our existing driveway at the neighboring pump station,” he said, referring to the Gowanus Pumping Station and Flushing Tunnel. “It also allows for a shorter construction period. And rather than disrupt the parkland, we are able to add open space above the tank and provide waterfront access.”

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The cornice of 234 Butler Street. Photo via Brad Vogel

In terms of the Gowanus Station, he was somewhat optimistic.

“We’re aware that many in the community feel tied to the building, in particular, the plaque that bears the community’s name,” he said. “This feature can be retained, restored, and reintegrated into the project in a way that speaks to the history of the site.”

Residents who were in attendance felt differently.

“This building could stand as testimony to the industrial use of the canal,” said Michael Salvatore. He suggested that it could become a museum. “Let’s keep what we can keep.”

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Barges float along the Canal and pass under the Culver Viaduct, 1935. Photo by Seymour “Zee” Zolotorofe via The Sixth Borough

Linda Marino, cofounder of the local activist group FROGG, felt that what was not being said was this was a moral issue.

“The DEP doesn’t own this building,” she said, reiterating that the city would have to seize the property through eminent domain. “This is taking somebody’s property, paying an enormous sum of money and probably years of litigation in order to usurp the building’s owner, his family, the workers, and other people along the strip as well.”

A board member for Spoke the Hub, a nonprofit dance organization that is temporarily housed at 234 Butler Street, asked about the resources that would be available to help out other nonprofits and artists who use the space if they are forced to move.

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Kayakers on the Gowanus Canal. Photo by Hannah Frishberg

Marlene Donnelly, the final person to speak, summed up a common feeling in the room. Is the alternative actually better for the community?

“We could have less impact on construction, and even [less] debris removal if we just dug one hole in our community,” she said. “And you cut your costs because you’re doubling up your efforts.”

She added, “Let’s put our sewage money into sewage infrastructure, not land acquisition.”

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