NYC’s Latest Luxury Scheme Could Leave Gowanus Residents in a Foul Place

Issue 248

Peter Rugh Jul 1, 2019

When yuppies arrive, so too do artisanal mayonnaise shops, doggy manicurists and baby strollers that go for $1,000. But with New York City planning to rezone Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood to make room for 8,200 new apartments, most of which will be market-rate, locals are worried the yuppies will herald something far worse: a river of shit flowing into its legendarily putrid canal.

In few other places in America would elected officials, city planners and billion-dollar real-estate investors be falling all over each other to erect luxury condos beside a toxic-waste dump, but this is New York in the 21st century. Every square inch of this concrete grid might as well have a dollar sign emblazoned on it. Developers are squeezing this city like a lemon for every penny they can get out of it.

‘The neighborhood cannot handle that level of sewage.’

Meanwhile, there are roughly 60,000 homeless people in these five boroughs, and nearly half of New York renters are spending upwards of 30 percent of what they earn each month for rent. In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to build or preserve 300,000 units of “affordable housing.” But the way the city is going about it, while profitable to developers, is only exacerbating the emergency. It is upzoning whole neighborhoods and requiring in exchange that 20 to 30 percent of the new housing built rent for below market rate. The returns are diminishing. Most of the new housing is not only unaffordable for residents of the rezoned areas, but the new influx of wealthy residents living on high-value properties has caused rents to skyrocket all around them.

Which brings us back to Gowanus, where the de Blasio administration has set its sights for its biggest neighborhood makeover to date, and the coming river of shit. By the Department of City Planning’s (DCP) own calculations, the current population of Gowanus generates 179,000 gallons of sewage per day. With rainwater frequently overwhelming the city’s combined sewer overflow system and the wastewater gushing into the Gowanus Canal, 1.8 miles of some of the most spectacularly polluted water in the country. Some estimates put the figure much higher. Critics worry that the 18,000 new residents expected to live in 22- to 30-story buildings near or beside the canal could wash a years-long cleanup drive down the drain.

“The neighborhood cannot handle that level of sewage,” says Joseph Alexiou, author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal and a longtime neighborhood resident. “It already cannot handle the level of sewage that is there now.”

The Gowanus was once one of the most heavily trafficked maritime passages in the United States, and irrigation problems have plagued it from its inception. Its pollution has two major sources. First, it contains the remnants of a century and a half of industrial waste, much from the coal-processing plants and other chemical manufacturing operations that lined its shores in the early 20th century. The second source is the human excrement that has been flushed into the canal for decades, which often lingers rather than drifting out to sea.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began overseeing the canal cleanup in 2010 over the objections of the city, which is named as a responsible party for the pollution under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. The law enables the Feds to designate certain highly toxic areas “Superfund” sites, and they can use it to force polluters to clean or at least cover the cost of remediation.

The Brooklyn gas-and-electricity utility National Grid and a host of smaller entities are also named as responsible parties. Together they’re expected to pick up the $500 million restoration tab. The city’s initial opposition to the Superfund site designation had as much to do with a desire to skip out on that tab as it did with its desire to sell off the neighborhood. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration had planned to allow developers to build 3,200 new apartments in the area surrounding the canal. That development was allegedly going to pay for the cleanup by itself. The Superfund designation forced the city to scrap its initial upzoning plans — but nearly a decade later, it is at it again.

In the intervening years, dredging and other restoration efforts have made headway and the Gowanus is cleaner than it has been in 150 years. Environmentalists with the Billion Oyster Project are reintroducing the shellfish to the canal. Paddlers, guided by the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, are traversing its waters with increasing regularity.

“It used to be bad,” said Jimmy Rivis, who was taking a smoke break outside the Eastern Effects film studio by  the water on a recent weekday morning. “It used to be green. It’s much better now.” Nevertheless, at low tide, he added, diapers, dead rats and even the skeletal remains of cars can be seen resting in the black muck of the canal bed, known colloquially as “black mayonnaise” for its gel-like texture, creamy in all but color.

In May, the EPA warned that the fresh tide of crap the Gowanus upzoning will generate could overpower the city’s already-weak sewage overflow systems and further pollute the waterway.

The canal floods roughly once a year. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, its mire-ridden waters widened a block in both directions. In order to mitigate the contamination, the EPA has approved plans drafted by the city’s Department of Environmental Preservation (DEP) to install a pair of sewage overflow tanks. The price of those tanks, originally estimated at $77.7 million, has risen to $1.2 billion, in part, the EPA says, because of the city’s decision to construct them on privately-held land seized by eminent domain. That figure is more than double the entire projected cost of the canal remediation.

Then, in another twist, DEP announced plans in January to scrap the overflow tanks entirely and instead build a half-mile-long tunnel that will run 150 feet beneath the canal to capture the sewage runoff. While this new scheme will enable the city to capture about 4 million gallons of additional crap water and can be built out to accommodate more, the tunnel will cost $1.25 billion and won’t be completed until nearly 2040 — about half a decade after the tanks were expected to be finished. Meanwhile the buildup from the rezoning is expected to be complete by 2035, with 18,000 new apartment dwellers.

Other forces are also spilling into the neighborhood, mainly the swanky neighborhoods of Cobble Hill to the northwest and Park Slope to the east. Wedged right between these two bastions of cafes, galleries, restaurants and bars, Gowanus is now a desirable place to live, even if the smell of rot still wafts off the water on a hot summer’s day. Residents of Lightstone Group’s 365 Bond building — where a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the canal comes to nearly $4,000 a month — can saunter over the Third Street bridge to the recently opened Whole Foods and pick up their moringa powder and oat milk. Kushner Properties, owned by the president’s son-in-law, and another development firm, SL Green, recently sold a parcel across from the grocer to RFR Realty for a reported $120 million.

Their neighborhood suddenly hip, lifelong residents who lived in Gowanus when it was considered a post-industrial waste zone fear the rezoning will further intensify the gentrification already underway.

“It’s not been a place where people wanted to live, because the canal was at the center of it,” says Michael Higgins of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE). “Now that the Superfund has been going on for the last eight to nine years and the neighborhoods around the canal have seen substantial growth and huge rent increases, there’s this demand to actually build residential on the canal. Our question is, how do you allow that and respect the environmental impacts of having thousands of new apartments on this polluted waterway that is also an open sewer? And then how do you support the housing that’s already there?”

Three New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) properties just north of the canal — the Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Gardens Houses and the Warren Street Houses — have combined unmet capital needs of $240 million. Residents of public housing, who make up about a quarter of Gowanus’ population, however, were gerrymandered off the rezoning map.

FUREE and other members of the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice, a grouping of cultural, civic, environmental and religious organizations, are calling on the city to follow a “value capture” model as it upzones the canal, whereby developers who want to build have to put funds toward repairing the NYCHA properties. A similar development strategy helped fund the 7 train extension to Manhattan’s Hudson Yards megadevelopment.

For now, at least, the city is going another route. NYCHA is selling off Wyckoff Gardens’ parking lot to two developers — Sol Arker of Arker Companies and Two Trees’ CEO Jed Walentas — who have together given $124,600 to de Blasio’s 2017 re-election bid and his charity Campaign for One New York, which shut down the previous year amid probes into its fundraising activities by both the federal Department of Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Charges were never filed, but a 15-page report by the city’s Department of Investigation, released in April, found that de Blasio had violated conflict-of-interest laws on numerous occasions by doling out favors to big-time contributors.

In exchange for $37 million to NYCHA, $18.5 million of which will go directly to Wyckoff Gardens, Arker and Two Trees will build two 16-story buildings on the property, totaling 500 units, half of which will be market-rate. Tax subsidies have yet to be worked out, but a developer who reached a similar arrangement on the Upper East Side is giving NYCHA $25 million for building rights and receiving a $13 million tax write-off.

At the Warren Houses, the city began accepting requests for proposals from private management companies in February to take over the buildings after they’re converted to Section 8 voucher housing.

FUREE opposes both approaches to addressing the NYCHA deficit and wants an upfront commitment to public housing as the city rezones. When it comes to the approximately 3,000 apartments that are supposed to be “affordable” under DCP’s proposal, it wants them to actually be affordable to locals, rather than by the “Area Median Income” metric that includes the wealthier enclaves of the city and its surrounding suburbs. The Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition is also pushing for a rezoning that doesn’t add to the burden on the watershed but instead brings back the area’s historical ecosystem, marshland. It has a vision for the canal as a “clean waterway that people can actually use, not just as something to look at that real estate can build next to,” says Higgins.

He also worries that gentrification will alter the area’s economic ecosystem. The rent-law reforms approved in Albany this June will make it harder for landlords to price rent-stabilized tenants out. But even if regulated and public housing remains secure, local businesses that the neighborhood depends on could be driven out.

“It’s not enough that you can afford your apartment, but can’t afford anything around it,” said Higgins.

The city is now conducting an environmental study on its rezoning proposal and is reviewing the public comments it received through May.

“A clean Gowanus Canal and neighborhood is a top priority,” says DCP spokesperson Joe Marvilli. The department “is working closely with DEP on analysis of and solutions to sewer overflow, including plans for facilities that will intercept sewage before it reaches the canal” and a nearby Industrial Business Zone, one of 21 areas where the city has earmarked $41 million dedicated to preserving manufacturing businesses. Marvilli emphasized that without a rezoning, there would be no way to force properties surrounding the canal to remediate.

Any proposal DCP puts forward will go to Community Board 6 for nonbinding recommendations and will ultimately come before the City Council.

Councilmembers Brad Lander and Stephen Levin represent the area surrounding the canal and Lander has taken a leading role in championing the rezoning. He calls it an “opportunity to build a more affordable, integrated, vibrant, and sustainable community than the one we have today,” in a statement on his website. But he cautions that there remains “substantial work to do on critical issues, including investing in the nearby NYCHA developments, strengthening the Industrial Business Zone, and more.”

The Neighborhood Coalition has been meeting with Lander and Levin, both of whom seem receptive to their members’ demands, says Higgins. It has also been in talks with the DCP. But, he adds, Mayor de Blasio will also hold a lot of sway, as he’s a resident of neighboring Park Slope.

Should the rezoning go forward as is, what might save Gowanus, at least environmentally speaking, is that luxury housing in New York often sits vacant. According to the Census Bureau’s 2017 Housing and Vacancy Survey, there were 75,000 units of housing in New York City occupied for only part of the year. Many of these apartments serve as pieds-à-terre for the wealthy. Perhaps the new neighbors coming to Gowanus won’t be home so often to pull their toilet handles.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article, in print and online, misstated the amount of and process by which sewage enters the Gowanus Canal. 

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