i really dont understand Toll Brother's logic... are they saying its hard to market because there is a negative stigma associated with a "superfund" site? as opposed to being on the banks of nyc's most polluted water way?
The statement made by Toll is one of the most exemplary of how ethicless and money-hungry biased NYC developers are. One thing is to brush aestehics aside from buildings and made them visually prosaic and for the most part funnel out architectural character of the city since the 50's --which has been NYC-developers favorite way to make the world a less pleasant place for New Yorkers and its visitors as a whole. Its hard to argue that position sometimes because it is not like they are killing anybody...
But it is a complete other thing to disregard health issues associated with a site that is completely polluted and resist corrective actions for the sake of your bottomline (you know that Toll is getting involved with someone to dissuade them making this a superfund site). They are willing to build housing in the midst of a toxic sludge and risk never getting the area properly cleaned up for the sake of "marketing residentials". What an irresponsible position to take.
I understand that, unfortunately, you have to get the "stakeholders" (developers and homeowners alike) involved in these types of things, but $$$ can be a potent hallucogenic for those who are suceptible. And under the prospect of several million dollars in profits doses the most logical and obvious decision will not get the adequate cognitive effort; and it will be OK to build residental housing near a toxic waste site and risk chronic long term exposure of God knows what.
Considering all that we know today about eviromental pollutants their toxicology profiles it really makes the people who are against this is position really appaling. And in this case they are risking killing someone.
Last edited by TREPYE; April 25th, 2009 at 12:29 PM.
i really dont understand Toll Brother's logic... are they saying its hard to market because there is a negative stigma associated with a "superfund" site? as opposed to being on the banks of nyc's most polluted water way?
Maybe Toll Brothers was thinking of this:
The relatively easy part is cleaning the canal so the area looks better and doesn't stink. You pronounce the site environmentally remediated, and start building. Most people won't know.They also argued that the Superfund designation would give the Environmental Protection Agency veto power over the city’s own Gowanus plans, including rezoning 25 blocks of industrial land to allow for residential and commercial development and spending $175 million to diminish odors and prevent sewage discharges that have contributed to the canal’s pollution.
Designate it a Superfund site, and it has to be really cleaned.
I think it belongs in the "Guide for New Yorkers" though, since it's infrastructure.
Feds want to turn Newton Creek into Superfund site
BY Erin Durkin
October 2nd 2009
Unlike the Gowanus, there aren't any housing developers wanting to build
around Newtown Creek who might get scared away by a Superfund designation.
Newton Creek flows westward into the East River.
The federal government wants to make the polluted Newtown Creek a Superfund site - and it could have smoother sailing than a controversial plan to add the Gowanus Canal to the list of tainted locations.
Mayor Bloomberg has made it a top priority to scuttle Superfund designation for the Gowanus. In an unusual move, the mayor personally called EPA administrator Lisa Jackson last week to lobby against the Gowanus designation.
A Superfund listing "would be a nightmare," said Bloomberg, who is pushing a city plan to clean up the grimy canal.
"Better we can find developers that can put the money in and pay for the cleanup right now because they will get a benefit of being able to develop the land around there," the mayor added.
Superfund booster Marlene Donnelly of the group Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus shot back that "the mayor shouldn't be sticking his nose into that agency."
"It's not a political decision, it's a scientific decision," she said. "Now the mayor is turning around and insisting it become a political decision. That's not right."
But Superfund director Walter Mugdan said the city hasn't asked federal officials to scrap listing Newtown Creek as a Superfund site.
"There certainly hasn't been any [opposition] as yet from the City of New York," he said. "At the moment, it appears to generate a little less concern than the Gowanus Canal proposed listing did."
Bloomberg spokesman Mark LaVorgna would only say that the federal proposal was being reviewed by city officials.
Unlike the Gowanus, there aren't any housing developers wanting to build around Newtown Creek who might get scared away by a Superfund designation.
"There's [only] zoned commercial area surrounding the creek, which is much less valuable than the residential property around Gowanus," said Newtown Creek Alliance board member Evan Thies.
Local elected officials - including Reps. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn,Queens), and Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) - have long pushed the feds to do a Superfund cleanup at the creek.
EPA investigators found high levels of PCBs and toxic metals in the creek, which is also the site of a massive Exxon oil spill.
"Newtown Creek is one of the most grossly contaminated waterways in the country," said acting EPA Regional Administrator George Pavlou.
On the Waterfront
By ANDREW RICE
An evening view from the Union Street Bridge.
GOWANUS DEVELOPMENT IN LIMBO
1. Gowanus Canal condo or rental building (360 proposed units).
2. Satori condos (34 existing units).
3. Toll Brothers condos and town houses (450 proposed units).
4. Gowanus Green mixed-use complex (770 proposed units).
5. Whole Foods store (proposed).
THE GOWANUS CANAL runs one and a half miles through brownstone Brooklyn, cutting a disreputable gash between two of the most desirable residential neighborhoods in New York City. Sunken below street level, no more than 100 feet across at most points, the canal does not really flow — it skulks. On sunny days, its waters take a greenish hue and are clear enough to afford glimpses of rotting bulkhead timbers, mud-caked tires and other submerged detritus. When it’s overcast, the water turns an inert gray. In the lawless old days, industries along the canal’s banks fouled it with all kinds of pollution. Today, the canal is mostly disused, a corridor of warehouses and razor wire, and the most enduring reminders of its colorful past emanate from several underground deposits of coal tar, which belch up oily bubbles. The residue forms a prismatic sheen on the canal’s surface, reflecting shimmering visions of the landscape.
Created in the mid-19th century out of a tidal creek named for an Indian headman, the Gowanus long resisted attempts at reformation, in sluggish defiance of generations of city planners, civic do-gooders, editorialists and speculators. But over the past decade, the government has cleaned up the water a bit, allowing the canal to be recolonized by some hardier forms of natural life — shore crabs and cormorants, silvery bait fish — along with enterprising humans. First came the artists for the cheap studio space, then the hipsters for the decayed authenticity, and finally, in the inevitable progression, residential developers arrived.
The Bloomberg administration, sensing a chance for revitalization, rushed to rezone 25 blocks of the Gowanus area for nonindustrial uses, identifying more than 60 development sites with a potential to generate at least $500 million in tax revenue. It didn’t appear to be a deterrent that the canal was, quite literally, still something of a cesspool. New York is, after all, a city where people have proved themselves willing to live almost anywhere, where no location, be it smelly or notorious (think the meatpacking district or Hell’s Kitchen or Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue, formerly known as Murder Avenue), seems to be beyond the reach of gentrification. But the case of the Gowanus Canal has put that assumption to an extreme test. The redevelopment process was creeping forward when, in April, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was considering adding the Gowanus Canal to its Superfund cleanup program, which is reserved for the nation’s worst hazardous-waste sites. The move surprised and enraged city officials, who warn that the “stigma” of being included in the program could halt economic improvement indefinitely.
“What some people say is, ‘Well, everybody knows the Gowanus Canal is polluted,’ ” says Cas Holloway, a mayoral adviser. “That is true, but the Superfund designation, in itself, is an important signifier in the marketplace.”
As the environmental debate rages on, the Gowanus Canal has been left to wait on the verge of metamorphosis, no longer one thing but not yet another. “It’s this area of transition,” a real estate broker named William Duke told me recently. It was a warm weekday evening in September, and we were standing at the trash-strewn terminus of a street that dead-ends into the waterway. “Between the old and the new, the natural world and the man-made world,” Duke went on. “It’s poetic.”
Duke is a canal enthusiast, a member of the small and quirky community that congregates around it, like so much flotsam, and a member of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. Once or twice a week, club members lend canoes to anyone willing to sign a liability waiver. Duke handed me and my sister, my canoeing companion, life jackets and paddles and helped us put into the water for an exploratory trip. High above us loomed a long-abandoned powerhouse for the old streetcar lines, now tagged with anticorporate slogans. A couple of years ago, it was taken over by squatting punks, who were rousted by foreign investors, including a diamond magnate close to Vladimir Putin. They announced plans to knock down the structure and replace it with Gowanus Village, a set of Brutalist-looking apartment buildings designed by a renowned architectural firm.
It was the same story everywhere along the canal: developers had come bearing watercolor renderings of an idealized blue waterway, flanked by condo buildings and walkways full of joggers and strollers. At Carroll Street, next to a landmarked retractile bridge, we saw a grove of poplars and an informal outdoor performance space that was slated to make way for a 450-unit complex of condominiums and town houses developed by Toll Brothers, the national luxury homebuilder. Farther along, past a string of moored boats of uncertain seaworthiness, there was another proposed residential development site. Doubling back to the canal’s south end, where there was a strong smell of petroleum, we paddled by a six-acre lot, owned by the city, that was intended for a 770-unit, mixed-income apartment complex, with an adjoining park, boathouse and waterside cafe. Then, near the Seussian pile of a scrap-metal yard, there was the coup de grâce of impending yuppification: a construction site that was supposed to become a Whole Foods.
All of these projects were proposed at the height of New York’s real estate boom, and nowadays, regardless of the outcome of the Superfund controversy, some of them look very much like the products of mania. But whether they actually come to fruition, the plans have already altered the canal’s identity, after decades of neglect, by making it into something valuable enough to fight over. Since the arrival of the developers, numerous competing interests have stepped forward to stake their own claims to what Bill Appel, the head of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, calls “a vast wasteland.” The urban homesteaders who have moved there want it to remain an eccentric hideaway; artists want to preserve its postapocalyptic look; a civic group, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, proposes to create a public park atop an innovative filtration system that acts like an artificial wetland.
“A few years ago, if you said ‘Gowanus’ to people, it had a connotation of rundown, derelict, even toxic, space,” says Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of the forthcoming book “Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.” But in a city where industry is increasingly invisible, it’s perhaps only natural that the canal would come to be prized, precisely because it retains some qualities of a vanishing, unsterilized version of the city. “It goes back to an earlier period when Brooklyn was new,” Zukin said, “and it offers a path back to a time that we don’t know.”
IT WAS THE day before the September Democratic primary election in New York City, and Salvatore Scotto — known as Buddy to friends and foes alike — was in his natural element. Sitting in a small coffee shop on Court Street in Brooklyn, he greeted gray-haired men in Italian, reminding them to vote for his favorite City Council candidate and jovially pressing them to buy tickets to a community group’s fund-raiser. “The mayor is going to be there,” Scotto promised. “He’s going to tell us something about the Gowanus Canal.”
One of the city’s senior Gowanus enthusiasts, Scotto is a funeral-home proprietor and neighborhood politico, a cheerfully anachronistic clubhouse character. Scotto, who is 81, likes to call himself the mayor of the Gowanus Canal and takes credit — much of it deserved — for seeing the waterway’s potential when others simply held their noses. In an era before modern sanitation, the canal was designed to serve not only as a commercial port but also as a discharge point for the city’s sewer system. By the time Buddy Scotto’s grandfather arrived in Brooklyn in 1898, a public campaign against the canal’s revolting smell was already afoot, with some calling for the corridor to be closed down and filled in. Instead, the city built a tunnel that circulated water from New York Harbor through the canal. But that solution never completely worked, and when the tunnel broke down in the 1960s, no one bothered to fix it. “The stench was clear up to Court Street in the summertime,” Scotto recalled. How the canal started to get clean, as he tells it, is an ornate tale of vintage municipal intrigue: he got a new sewage treatment plant built through horse-trading with Nelson Rockefeller and extracted a promise of financing to restore the flushing tunnel from a congressman weakened by a sex scandal. Bureaucratic delays kept the tunnel work from being completed for years, but finally in 1999 it began pumping in hundreds of millions of gallons of harbor water.
By this time most waterfront industries had deserted the canal. Scotto had a model for its revival: the picturesque river that runs through San Antonio, which is lined by restaurants and hotels. And sure enough, once the flushing system began to dissipate the infamous odor, life began to stir. High-priced development was marching toward the canal in a pincer movement, from Carroll Gardens on one side and Park Slope on the other.
The 2006 announcement that Toll Brothers planned to build a $250 million residential complex on the canal marked a watershed moment. The publicly traded company was the quintessential suburban luxury brand, best known for its lavish estate homes. The idea that it would consider the Gowanus Canal a comfortable place to settle made Scotto feel vindicated. “I want that development badly,” he said. “I mean, getting Toll Brothers to prove that you can have people living on that canal!”
Other builders rushed to follow Toll Brothers’ slipstream. But local opposition materialized just as quickly. The divide was clannish: fixtures of the old Italian neighborhood were increasingly outnumbered by the artsy types who had gained a foothold along the canal and the professionals who had paid millions for town houses on the tree-lined (and now stink-free) streets nearby. Some critics objected to the scale of the project, others accused it of corporate blandness, but the chief rallying cry was environmental.
In March 2009, the City Council voted to let Toll Brothers proceed with its project, but within weeks the E.P.A. threw up a new obstacle: the proposed Superfund listing. Toll Brothers and the other developers recoiled in horror. “You can’t sell a condominium on a Superfund site,” says Robert Pascucci, whose construction company has tentative plans to build a 360-unit residential complex along the canal. To Scotto, it seemed that the E.P.A. was carelessly throwing a lifetime’s worth of work into doubt.
SINCE THE E.P.A.’S announcement, all the other issues surrounding the canal, including the city’s rezoning initiative, have been superseded by an argument over federal intervention. Superfund supporters say that the E.P.A.’s move confirmed what they always suspected: that the canal is too dangerous to develop. “It’s a swamp,” says Marlene Donnelly, an architectural designer and a leader of group called Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, or Frogg, which meets in the back of a wine store on fashionable Smith Street. “It’s not the place for this kind of development.”
There are multiple dimensions to the canal’s pollution problems. First there is the ongoing problem of the water. The city’s ancient sewer system runs both stormwater and household waste through the same overloaded pipes, and when it rains, some of the overflow is redirected into the canal; an estimated 300 million gallons of dirty water, including untreated sewage, flood into the Gowanus each year. Riverkeeper, the environmental advocacy group, has detected unsafe levels of pathogens in regular tests of the water. “There are extremely high concentrations of a lot of really, really nasty things,” says Joshua Verleun, a Riverkeeper staff lawyer.
That’s obviously not a selling point for real estate, and as part of its redevelopment efforts the city had already announced a $175 million plan to limit the sewer overflow. But that would do little to address an even nastier problem: the bottom of the canal, which hasn’t been extensively dredged since 1975 because of the complexity and expense involved in dumping the sediment. Core samples contain a horde of chemicals, some of them now banned, and heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic. Probably the most vexing contaminant is coal tar, a byproduct of a 19th-century process for manufacturing gas for lighting. There were once three gas plants along the Gowanus, and they left behind spreading subterranean lakes of ooze that have since seeped into the canal’s bed.
Walter Mugdan, the E.P.A. official who coordinates the Superfund program in New York, says that bringing the canal into the program is the best way to assure that it gets completely remediated. (When I asked him about the wisdom of canoeing the canal, he replied, “Try not to tip.”) The Bloomberg administration has vehemently opposed the proposal on grounds that the Superfund process is litigious and glacially slow, and it has proposed its own alternative plan that is tied to multiple, but uncertain, financing sources, including Congressional earmarks.
Toll Brothers has made it clear that if the designation is made, it will almost certainly walk away from the Gowanus Canal. “We’re talking decades” for a Superfund cleanup to be completed, says David Von Spreckelsen, the Toll Brothers executive leading the project. He says that existing city and state programs have already made great progress without hindering investment. “For a really valuable area in the heart of New York City, the heart of Brooklyn, is Superfund really the way we want to go?” Von Spreckelsen asks. “Because we’re writing it off for a really, really long time.”
Of course, there are plenty of other forces conspiring against development at the present moment. Like most homebuilders, Toll Brothers has been hit hard by the nationwide real estate collapse — it has reported $644 million in net losses so far this year — and some local observers wonder whether the economic impetus that drove the wave of investment in the Gowanus may have ebbed. For instance, despite price cuts, Satori, a high-profile 34-unit condominium development across the street from the canal, has recorded only 12 sales since it hit the market in the late summer of 2008, according to streeteasy.com. The developers who proposed Gowanus Village have already given up and put their land back on the market. As the final decision on Superfund listing sits with E.P.A. authorities in Washington, it looks increasingly likely that, for the immediate future, the canal will continue to belong to those who are already there — the pioneers.
“I think the economy has saved the artists,” says Joshua Marks, a sculptor who is a coordinator of a Gowanus studio tour, held every October, called Agast. The bohemians have been drawn to the canal by many of the very qualities that its self-appointed saviors hope to eliminate. They have shown an arch appreciation for its toxic reputation, making the Gowanus landscape into a subject of their work and finding inventive ways to reuse its rundown structures. A few years ago, a group of artists took over a decrepit World War II-era Navy rescue boat and turned it into a floating gallery space.
This summer, a company called Macro Sea set up some trash container bins on a parking lot, lined them with plastic, filled them with water and started a postindustrial pool club. One of the canal’s most distinctive sights is a pair of silo-shaped structures, former storage tanks that have been retrofitted as artist studios by a local investor and impresario named David Lefkowitz.
The past two years, Lefkowitz has teamed with a party promoter to put on summertime musical events next to the silos and the dock where he parks his motorboat.
If the canal’s recent history is a conflict between what is and what could be, Lefkowitz has a foot on each side of the transition. Practically, he’s a speculator, but temperamentally he’s an enthusiast. A ruddy man of diverse pursuits, he bought his land a decade ago, and he speaks about the waterway in almost mystical terms. “Even if the water was dirty, you could feel that magic,” he told me one recent afternoon, as he piloted his motorboat toward the Ninth Street Bridge. We passed a metal yard, where a massive crane was loading salvaged scraps onto a barge — a fine metaphor, Lefkowitz suggested. “It’s a miracle of rebecoming,” he told me. “What’s exciting to people is that they can stand there and fantasize about what it could become.”
The narrow corridor opened up into Gowanus Bay and then the bobbing expanse of New York Harbor. Lefkowitz explained why, after many years of trying out various enterprises, he finally agreed to sell his property to Toll Brothers, at a considerable price. “There is no other dream that makes sense,” he said. “The usage that’s coming is the usage of its time.”
As we headed back up the canal, we passed a group of teenagers hanging out at the end of a dead-end road, smoking something. “Where does this lead to?” one of them yelled across the dark green water.
Lefkowitz shouted back, “Heaven!”
Twice as Smelly
Mayor wants to scrub Gowanus, avoiding Superfund listing
On October 9, from the banks of the Gowanus Canal, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a new, $150 million investment in the waterway's infrastructure. Except that it was not exactly new. Seven years prior, the mayor, then at the beginning of his first term, made a similar visit and a similar announcement. Only that investment never happened.
The 2002 cleanup was to bring the city in compliance with the Clean Water Act, which was being violated because during heavy rains, the sewer system would discharge raw sewage into the canal. By 2005, when the improvements still had not been made, the state filed a consent order compelling the city to come into compliance. But it was only this October that the mayor finally returned to the canal, though now for an entirely different reason, and one the new infrastructure would have little impact on: a proposal announced in April by the EPA to make the canal—one of the most polluted waterways in the city—into a Superfund site, a fate Bloomberg, with real estate interests in mind, greatly feared.
"This is the beginning of a comprehensive cleanup that will be done much faster than the years of fighting through the Superfund process," he declared.
That said, the promised improvements to sewage overflow have nothing to do with the toxic sediments in the canal that have caused the community so much concern, and which finally forced the EPA to take action.
Furthermore the city's own proposal to clean up those sediments, which was also unveiled last month, has been questioned by environmentalists, scientists, and even the Army Corps of Engineers, the city's partner in the program.
Joshua Verleun, a staff attorney for the environmental group Riverkeeper, noted that major wastewater treatment projects are always good news, "but to lump it in with Superfund is misleading—they're two different things," he said. "Both from a legal perspective and an advocacy perspective, Superfund really is the best way to clean up the canal and it's what the people in the community want and deserve."
The mayor was steadfast in maintaining that his plan had more money and would be more efficient. "There is no Superfund, it's a misnomer," he said.
But according to the EPA, its Superfund remediation budget is in excess of $1 billion every year. Region 2, which covers New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, receives between $80-$100 million per year, and was closer to $250 million this year thanks to stimulus funding.
By comparison, the city's plan counts on the Army Corps of Engineers to tap the Water Resource Development Act for funds to clean the canal, of which there is only $50 million available each year for the entire country. The cleanup of the canal is expected to cost between $250 million and $400 million, making the mayor's nine- to ten-year estimate seem exceedingly optimistic.
Another potential problem is how the city's plan seeks to bring local stakeholders to the table to pay for their portion of the cleanup. Unlike Superfund, which uses detailed investigations to identify responsible parties and compels them to pay for cleanup through legal means, the city's program would be voluntary. The city is hoping those local businesses and developers would help pay for the cleanup to avoid the supposed stigma of Superfund listing. Many of the canal's neighbors believe it is too late for that. "That's just bunk," said Craig Hammerman, district manager of local Community Board 6. "How can you stigmatize a stigmatized area? The cleanup will destigmatize it, though, and that's what we're after."
The mayor has claimed that the city process also has the advantage of being faster than Superfund because it avoids litigation. But Walter Mugdan, director of Superfund Programs for EPA Region 2, counters that of the more than 1,000 Superfund sites to date, no more than one or two have involved lengthy litigation. And when litigation is called for, it takes place after the cleanup is already underway, thereby creating no delays to the process.
Meanwhile, involving the Army Corps, as the city plans, could actually slow down the process by one or two years because the Corps would have to acquire permits for work that the EPA can do as of right. "I think the thing that's important with the EPA is the legal power, the legal authority, which the Corps doesn't have," said Mark Lulka, the Army Corps' project manager on Gowanus restoration.
Another issue that could slow the cleanup—and add to its complexity—is that it would be a multiagency operation, between the city, state, EPA, and Army Corps. "Superfund is a known quantity," Lulka said. "Do I think we can do the work? Yes. But it's never been done before."
David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers City Living, has joined the mayor in opposition to Superfund listing. As head of the Clean Gowanus Now! Coalition, Von Spreckelsen argues it threatens millions of dollars of development, including his own 460-unit residential complex on the canal's shores, for little gain. "At the end of the day, what we'll have is a waterway where, instead of eating one fish a month, you can safely eat a couple," he said. "In a perfect world, it's a good thing, but for people on the canal, it won't make that much of a difference."
But when presented with the potentially higher costs and timeline of a city-run cleanup, Von Spreckelsen began to concede that it might not be the best option. "If that were the case, of course we'd say that's fantastic," he said. "Nobody has a bigger interest in seeing this cleaned up than us because we have our rezoning and we're ready to build." Von Spreckelsen did reiterate that his attorneys had told him the Superfund process would be intractable, and he remained skeptical that banks would be willing to lend in a Superfund area.
It may come down to that, though, as the Bloomberg team was dealt a blow on October 16, when Nydia Velázquez, the area's congresswoman and a tireless supporter of the canal, sided with Superfund. "With nearly three decades of experience, the EPA has the expertise and resources to carry out a comprehensive remediation of these sites, creating a safe place for New Yorkers to live and work," Velázquez said in a statement.
With the city and the EPA's plans now both official, all that remains is for the EPA to announce its position on Superfund listing—whether it will take over the canal or bow to the city. That announcement was expected this fall, and while it still could possibly be announced, the EPA typically makes such announcements only twice a year, in March and September. On September 29, Newtown Creek was announced as another site in the city under consideration for the Superfund list, but there was no word on the Gowanus.
Whether that means it will wait until March remains to be seen, though, as Mugdan and others suggested there was nothing stopping the EPA from announcing it sooner. The mayor has made at least one official call to discuss the issue personally with Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator who used to run New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.
Marc LaVorgna, a mayoral spokesperson, insisted the city would prevail because its approach is superior. "They're confident they have the better plan, and we're not," he said of the EPA. "It's a difference of opinion."
For Richard Plunz, director of the Urban Design Lab at Columbia's Earth Institute, where he has done work on the Gowanus, the mayor's reasoning is clear. "I am not so familiar with the details of the NYC alternative plan," Plunz wrote in an email. "But of course I understand that the city doesn't want to hinder real estate investment in the short term with a more cumbersome (but effective) Superfund cleanup. This game is obvious to all."
This goes right to the heart of why I despise Bloomberg: he cares about nothing but real estate "interests". Screw what regular people actually need and want. SOB. This is despicable, even for him.the EPA to make the canal—one of the most polluted waterways in the city—into a Superfund site, a fate Bloomberg, with real estate interests in mind, greatly feared.
The Jane Jacobs of Gowanus
By Joseph Alexiou
On a recent sunny Saturday morning, a group of 30- to 40-something Carroll Gardens locals stood outside Carroll Park at a table manned by local community activists, their discussion rife with words like "developers" and "preservation." Upset that the nearby Hannah Senesh Community Day School was seeking a variance that would allow it to acquire public land, the activists were hard at work soliciting signatures for their petition against the change. Once I heard one of the concerned citizens utter the words "Superfund," and "Gowanus Canal," I had to ask, "Do any of you know Linda Mariano?"
One activist named Maryann piped up: "Everyone knows Linda," she told me, declining to give a last name but introducing her attentive mutt, Ringo.
"She's one of the most amazing women in this neighborhood!" yelled Jacqueline Raque, a Carroll Gardens resident originally from California. "In an area full of amazing women, she is a shining star," she said.
Linda Mariano is somewhat of a local hero in Carroll Gardens to bloggers, business owners, and especially those residents who feel strongly about preserving the neighborhood's character. It is, in part, because of her efforts that the EPA has nominated the Gowanus Canal—a stinky, garbage-filled body of industrial refuse—as a potential federal Superfund site. If passed, the large-scale cleaning project would include dredging the man-made passage for all of the dangerous metals and toxins buried deep beneath its oily, lavender surface over a century of industrial use.
An October article of The New York Times Magazine about the EPA nomination cites FROGG (Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus), a group that Ms. Mariano co-founded, as a mouthpiece for community members who supported the nomination and were adamant against the premature development of housing along what many consider to be a toxic site. Among her efforts, Ms. Mariano distributed fliers and pins with a logo depicting a whale that read "Gowanus Canal: Superfund Me!" Some of the posters can still be seen in the windows of houses in Carroll Gardens.
"We seek to improve the environment because of the level of toxins and contamination in the land," Ms. Mariano says. "The Gowanus is what we would call an aquatic brownfield. We've responded to every developer who has put in applications for variance and rezoning, and not just with memos. We've gone to hearings and meetings and sent in written materials to various representatives—our gift from the gods is the Superfund nomination, I have to say."
An EPA spokesperson later told Ms. Mariano that, normally, the nomination of a new Superfund site generates about 10 or 15 written responses. In the case of the Gowanus Canal, the EPA received more than 800.
The Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC) is a community group, with offices located on Court Street in Carroll Gardens. According to executive director Bill Appel, they are opposed to the Superfund nomination because it is akin to "putting a smallpox stamp onto someone's home."
Mr. Appel says that the FHA, for instance, has stated that they will not grant any mortgages within 3,000 feet of any Superfund site, which would include almost all of Carroll Gardens east of Court Street if the proposal goes through. He is also certain the Superfund process will take over 20 years to complete, never allowing the "barren wasteland" of undeveloped land around the canal to serve a purpose. While he recognizes the environmental concerns surrounding the Gowanus, he is more optimistic about the health of the waterway than Ms. Mariano and her fellow FROGGs.
"We're here for economic development," Mr. Appel said. "We're in the business of bringing in taxpayers and viable jobs to the area. There's no medical evidence that the canal causes long-term diseases here, and you're not going to swim in the water or drink it." Mr. Appel, a fifth-generation resident of the area, said he was no less concerned with preserving residents health than any other group in the area.
Ms. Mariano refused to comment extensively about Mr. Appel or the GCCDC (whom she and her fellow FROGGS refer to as "Guccis" after the Italian haute couture house), although she finds his attitude toward the environmental concerns foolish. ("This is the 21st century!" she says, incredulous. "We should clean things!") Ms. Mariano, who is admittedly a staunch idealist, is certain that the GCCDC's intentions are not sincere in regards to the community's best interests. She also suggested that their relationship with developers like Toll Brothers, which has bid to build a large condo community on the Gowanus (with the strong support of Mayor Bloomberg), hurts their credibility and makes their intentions questionable.
With her husband, Joseph, Ms. Mariano has for 36 years been living in a brownstone on President Street, between Bond and Hoyt, an area she considers to be in Gowanus, the nascent neighborhood between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Both artists and retired teachers, the couple moved to the area from the West Village in 1974, well before this part of Brooklyn was hip (or particularly safe). Over the years they have built up their formerly dilapidated building into a do-it-yourself artists' dream home.
Upstairs rooms are jam-packed with paint, canvases and quilting materials, while the lower area, centered around a cozy kitchen, is a utilitarian gallery of colorful recycled materials and found objects, from doors to floor tiles.
Ms. Mariano has a special passion for industrial architecture and historic buildings—after three decades in the neighborhood, she senses the character and appeal that the warehouses bring and the creative, artistic types that such spaces attract—a recipe for the conditions that eventually lead to New York's ubiquitous neighborhood gentrification. The unique character of a neighborhood like Gowanus has a particularly Jane Jacobs–y appeal: one where residential, light industrial and commercial spaces all interact to create a varied and diverse population (although now it's admittedly gentrified, not unlike Jacobs' own Greenwich Village).
"I'm a preservation person at heart," Ms. Mariano said, "and I believe in this phrase people are starting to use, 'adaptive re-use,' and this is about just that." She pauses reflectively, fingering the beads on one of the colorful Bakelite necklaces she often sports along with her handmade knitwear.
"These buildings can be used rather than torn down. "
A perky and slight 66-year-old, Ms. Mariano spends her weekends working in a kitschy store on Court Street, where she can often be found mid-conversation, sporting a toothy grin, skinny arms waving emphatically as she describes her most recent exploits involving the local history or current developments of her beloved quarter of Brooklyn. With the timing of a seasoned comedian, Ms. Mariano's storytelling is enough to make you pull up a chair and get comfortable: "Aha!" she loves to exclaim, "now if you think that's interesting, well wait till you hear this!"
She cares so deeply about the involvement of the city and of developers in the area that her twinkly-eyed irony sometimes code switches to flat-out rage: Her long graying hair, usually pulled up into a partial bun, shakes with anger as she literally turns red at the mention of big-named architects and developers who have offended her ideals in some way. At times, this range of emotions she lets out seems a bit hyperbolic, but it is this boundless energy that has her forever hitting the pavement and perusing the area streets, keeping up with the most recent changes and conditions, even in the most inclement weather.
Ms. Mariano's passion transformed her from a concerned resident into neighborhood historian and preservation activist. Community groups and journalists tap her for information, especially when it's about the environmental conditions surrounding the Gownaus Canal or local development.
MS. MARIANO'S CAREER as an activist began in 2002, when condo developers applied for a variance that would have led to the demolition of a hangar-shaped warehouse at 450 Union Street (also known as 450 Union or, simply, the Green Building) on a corner of Bond Street, right near her home. She and several concerned neighbors united to fight against its destruction.
"I saved that building!" she shouts about the lime green structure, now currently home to an event space and art gallery. "It's an old industrial space that belongs [in the neighborhood] way more than some chichi condos for rich people! For two years we went to meetings at the Board of Standards and Appeals to defend our position. At first, I was so nervous to speak in front of the board, my knees knocked together and my glasses fell off my head—it's like they're judging whether you live or die!"
But after two years of hearings, Ms. Mariano recalls, the board voted against the variance and her efforts won. "The last time I spoke in front of the board," she says with a glowing grin, "audience members were stopping me and asking me if I could speak on behalf of their group!"
Ms. Mariano co-founded FROGG in 2004, soon after the 450 Union Street victory, along with her husband and longtime community members Margaret Maugenest and architect Marlene Donnelly, among others. Its inception can also be traced to the Gowanus Stakeholders' meetings, a series of information sessions sponsored by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corps of Engineers (the latter organization had nominated numerous sites along the Gowanus for placement in the National Register of Historic Places). Ms. Mariano and her cohorts used to attend bi-monthly talks from 2004 through 2006, although meetings themselves were mostly a "waste of time," she says, since the government officials lacked much needed data. At one point they asked, for example, if the Atlantic Yards site was on the same water table as the Gowanus. According to Ms. Mariano, it is.
However, it brought together a group of concerned locals who were interested in learning more about the environmental conditions surrounding the canal. Soon they began meeting regularly through FROGG, acting as watchdogs for all of the actions of local developers and researching as much as possible about the environmental conditions surrounding the Gowanus.
FROGG co-founder Margaret Maugenest is an artist who has lived for 26 years in a Nevins Street loft ("at the heart of Gowanus"), and worked with Ms. Mariano ever since their efforts to save 460 Union.
"We wouldn't be where we are now without Linda," she said in a phone interview. "She gathers all of the information from every newspaper and printed source—she has boxes and boxes of files and clippings and printouts, from the EPA and the Army Corps, Columbia University studies, a vast library."
According to Ms. Maugenest, Ms. Mariano is a "neighborhood scholar" who relies on cold facts to submit formal inquiries and responses to every brownfield applicant and developer proposal to use Gowanus land for development. She cites Ms. Mariano's skill at calling agencies, putting in freedom of information requests and similar procedural motions. Without facts to back up their claims, FROGG wouldn't be able to have the effects it has, she says.
"[Linda] is always very diligent in watching local papers for announcements of brownfield applications and being on top of new applications going in," Ms. Maugenest said. "Developers are required to notify the community [and they do so] in the tiny print, tiny local paper. Unless someone were actively reading those on a weekly basis, you would never know and so Linda always keeps us informed."
Katia Kelly writes the Carroll Gardens blog Pardon Me For Asking and also works with FROGG. "Linda's one of the pioneers of Gowanus. She loves it for its rawness and that it's just not Manhattan," Ms. Kelly said. The 25-year Carroll Gardens resident and blogger finds that Mariano's earnestness explains her passion for the saving the neighborhood.
"She has this spirit of calm, this belief that truth will prevail. Even with the mighty Toll Brothers, she just said 'it's not going to happen, right will prevail.' She never gives up hope," Ms. Kelly sighed melancholically, wishing she had the same level of optimism as Ms. Mariano.
NOWADAYS, WALKING DOWN Smith Street with Ms. Mariano is a slow process. Not because she moves slowly, nothing could be further from the truth, but because at least once every block someone stops her to say hello and catch up on neighborhood news. But despite her cheerful demeanor and buoyant declarations of love for her neighborhood ("I like the open sky and feel very comfy the way I live, and want to keep it that way,") she sees herself forever fighting a community battle, even if it's just over a piece of wall.
Most recently, she tipped off local bloggers about the possible destruction of a ConEd-owned Third Avenue wall said to be part of the original Dodgers stadium, known as Washington Park. After the story gained some attention, the Daily News and Brooklyn Courier picked it up—although the response from the preservation groups was as emotional as Ms. Mariano's, with some stating that the wall was not part of the stadium. Armed with articles and clippings about the wall, Ms. Mariano thinks differently.
"Kathy Howe from New York State Parks and Preservation called me in the first week of January," she said, "and she said to me, 'That wall is just a remnant!'"
"And I said, 'Excuse me!'" she said emphatically. "Remnants? I like remnants! They're all we have and they're part of our history."
Group Unleashes Red Cloud of Mortgage Death on Brooklyn
February 26, 2010, by Joey
The nasty battle over the potential Superfund designation of the Gowanus Canal—which would trigger an EPA-led cleanup of the fetid Brooklyn waterway, against the wishes of Mayor Bloomberg (who has a shorter-term plan) and the real estate developers looking to turn the canal into a new Gold Coast—just added a new chapter! Yesterday an anti-Supefund group calling itself Clean Gowanus Now! issued a press release touting some survey results that claim homeowners living near the canal will have serious problems if the Superfund designation happens:The survey of major lending institutions—including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank and HSBC—reveals that individuals or families applying for mortgages to purchase, refinance or renovate homes in much of Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill and Park Slope will find it nearly impossible to obtain approval on FHA-insured loans if the Gowanus is designated a Superfund site. This is a direct result of a new federal rule adopted by the FHA in June 2009 that sets forth a requirement that could preclude the FHA from insuring any mortgages on residential units within 3,000 feet of a Superfund site.As Carroll Gardens Diary notes, Clean Gowanus Now! is supported by developers like Toll Brothers and Africa-Israel. So while the group might not be impartial, we have to admit that its scare tactics are pretty sweet. Check out the map the group sent out to illustrate the potentially affected areas. Look out, Prospect Park!
Clean Gowanus Now! [cleangowanusnow.org]
"Clean Gowanus Now": An Oxymoron [Carroll Gardens Diary]
Gowanus Canal faces crucial cleanup decision
Feds expected to designate the Brooklyn area a Superfund cleanup site in move that could push back hopes of development in the area by a decade or more.
By Amanda Fung
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to decide this month whether to take over the cleanup of the polluted Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal and designate it as a Superfund site.
In December of 2008, the state Department of Environmental Conservation requested that the EPA consider putting the canal on its Superfund priorities list, despite the city's own efforts to clean up and develop the area. After initial testing, the EPA decided last April that the city's plan was inadequate and said it would continue to consider the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site. Since then, a business group called Clean Gowanus Now Coalition, which opposes the Superfund designation, has been lobbying the governor's office to reverse its position and withdraw its request to the EPA. The group supports the city's plan to clean up and develop the site.
A spokeswoman for the EPA confirmed that a public information meeting is scheduled for Thursday, “to let the community know what has been going on with the remedial investigation of the contamination and what we plan on doing.” But she declined to specify when a final decision will be made on the designation.
Some followers thought a decision to designate the canal a Superfund site was going to be made last November, but sources said Clean Gowanus Now's lobbying efforts had convinced the governor's office to ask the EPA to slow down its evaluation and consider the city's proposal. The governor's office could not be reached immediately for comment.
Insiders said it's likely that the EPA will go ahead and put the site on the Superfund list despite the lobbying efforts because the state has not rescinded its initial request. Such a designation will stymie any hope for development in the area in the near- and even medium-term. Developer Toll Brothers, which was supposed to purchase three parcels from three different owners on the canal to build mixed-income residential towers, has already said it would abandon its plans if the canal is a Superfund. Toll Brothers is a member of Clean Gowanus Now.
“Given the way Superfund sites work, it could be a decade or more from now before clean up starts,” said David Von Spreckelsen, vice president at Toll Brothers. “We just don't have that time horizon. We will most likely walk away from the properties.”
Since 2002, the Bloomberg's administration has been trying to rezone the area around the canal from industrial to mixed-use commercial and residential and received support from developers like Toll Brothers, which agreed to build their own sewage systems. The city has also set aside money to begin a broader remediation of the canal and even reached a deal with one major polluter of the area, National Grid—the successor company to the old Brooklyn Union Gas—to contribute to the cleanup. The city planned on generating hundreds of millions of dollars from the private sector for the cleanup.
Supporters of the Superfund status argue that the city's plan doesn't achieve the same level of cleanup that the EPA would and puts the public at risk to toxins and pesticides that could be left in the canal.
“Today our coalition members are exceedingly concerned,” said a Clean Gowanus Now spokesman. “We feel that we made the case to the state as to why the city administration's plan would clean up the canal faster and cheaper.”
Late last week, the coalition released the results of a survey that indicates that if the Gowanus is designated a Superfund site, lending to homeowners within 3,000 feet of the canal will be impossible due to new federal regulations put into place last year.
March 2, 2010
Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn Is Given Superfund Status
By MIREYA NAVARRO
The federal Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it was designating the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn a contaminated Superfund site, opening the way for a cleanup of the long-polluted waterway.
The decision comes as a blow to the Bloomberg administration, which had proposed a cleanup that would avoid such a designation. The city argued that the designation could set off legal battles with polluters, defer completion of a cleanup and torpedo construction by developers deterred by the stigma of a Superfund label.
The E.P.A. estimated that the federal cleanup would last 10 to 12 years and cost $300 million to $500 million.
The agency, which first proposed that the canal be designated a Superfund site last April at the urging of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, made its decision after reviewing comments from the public, city officials and others.
“After conducting our own evaluations and consulting extensively with the many people who have expressed interest in the future of the Gowanus Canal and the surrounding area, we have determined that a Superfund designation is the best path to a cleanup of this heavily contaminated and long-neglected urban waterway,” Judith Enck, the agency’s regional administrator, said in a statement.
In a preliminary assessment, the agency found contamination along the entire length of the 1.8-mile canal from the Gowanus Bay to New York harbor, including pollutants like pesticides, metals and the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs.
A spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg lamented the federal agency’s decision but said the city would cooperate closely with the agency in the months and years ahead.
“It’s disappointing,” said the spokesman, Marc LaVorgna. “We had an innovative and comprehensive approach that was a faster route to a Superfund-level cleanup and would have avoided the issues associated with a Superfund listing.”
“The project will now move on a Superfund time line, but we are going to work closely with the E.P.A. because we share the same goal — a clean canal,” he said.
Mr. LaVorgna said the mayor hoped that the E.P.A. would work with the city to address the concerns of residents and businesses that have raised concerns about the impact of a Superfund designation.Completed in the 1860s, the Gowanus evolved into a busy waterway for oil refineries, chemical plants, tanneries, manufactured gas plants and other heavy industry operating along its banks. Industrial waste, raw sewage and other runoff gushed into the canal for over a century as it served as a shipping hub.
Most of that flow has been halted, and the 100-foot-wide canal is now used for both commercial and recreational purposes by the neighborhoods bordering it, including Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook.
The city envisioned new residential and commercial uses along the canal and had already committed funds to upgrades of its sewage system to prevent further contamination. It proposed an alternative cleanup approach that the E.P.A. has sometimes used that would allow the responsible parties to voluntarily pay for the cleanup.
To reduce the price tag for the polluters, the city’s plan called for incorporating an environmental restoration project along the canal by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has begun a feasibility study for such a project. That effort would be eligible for separate federal financing.
But Ms. Enck said last week that her concern with the city’s plan was that it partly relied on federal allocations that required congressional approval and might not be forthcoming. Agency officials were also worried about adding to an already complicated process by having both the Corps of Engineers and the E.P.A. tackle parts of the cleanup.
Now that the Gowanus Canal has been added to the federal Superfund National Priorities List, reserved for the most contaminated in the nation, the government will mandate that the parties responsible for the pollution there pay for the removal of hazards.
The E.P.A. has already identified the city, the United States Navy and a long list of companies as potentially responsible for the sewer outflows and industrial discharges that have made the canal one of the most contaminated waterways in the country.
In advocating a Superfund listing in recent months, Ms. Enck rejected arguments that the designation would keep investors and lenders away.
“Banks look at the environmental conditions of the properties,” she said last week. “It is not a secret in Brooklyn that the Gowanus is contaminated. The notion that Superfund is going to create a stigma just doesn’t hold up.”
The E.P.A. said it would discuss its next steps regarding the canal at a public meeting with neighborhood residents and other stakeholders on Thursday night at Public School 58 on Smith Street in Brooklyn.
There are some disturbing views of the state of things in the slide show accompanying the NYT ^ article.
This is especially sad:
A minke whale in the Gowanus Bay near the canal in April 2007. Police boats tried to encourage it
to move out to sea, but it died after a few days there.
Not Every Developer Giving Up on Gowanus Canal
March 3, 2010, by Joey
Toll Brothers has confirmed that in the wake of the EPA slapping the Gowanus Canal with a Superfund designation, setting the wheels in motion on a fed-led cleanup process that will take 10-12 years, the developer will abandon its plans for a 450-unit housing development along the polluted waterway. But the stigma of the Superfund branding has not scared off the Hudson Companies and other developers involved in the group selected to develop Gowanus Green (above), the $300 million mixed-use project that includes 774 mixed-income units in nine buildings on the Carroll Gardens side of the canal. That ambitious project, designed by Rogers Marvel Architects and landscape designers West 8 and Starr Whitehouse, is still a go—eventually!
The Gowanus Green Partners issued a press release yesterday announcing that it's not giving up on the project, even though the Superfund situation "presents new challenges for financing and construction." The EPA has said that property values do mighty fine on contaminated sites once the Superfund process is over, and the decade-long wait doesn't seem to be an issue: The Gowanus Green site is currently in the state's Brownfield Cleanup Program. Here's what Gowanus Green is supposed to one day look like. As for financing the canal's cleanup, the Times reports that the EPA has already identified some polluters it will hit up for cash, including Con Ed, National Grid, the Navy and New York City itself. At least 20 other companies will also be getting phone calls. They should probably think about investing in caller ID. For the rundown on who's happy and who's sad about the Gowanus Superfund, check out McBrooklyn's handy summary.
Gowanus Canal Gets Superfund Status [NYT]
Gowanus Canal coverage [Curbed]