Romancing Gowanus

Yesterday, Councilman Bill de Blasio and his team set up a tent and a ring of multi-colored folding chairs next to the Gowanus Canal in Carroll Gardens for a forum intended to start a conversation between the community and city planners.

It began against the backdrop of several suited elected officials paddling canoes in the waterway.

This is the first of many such events de Blasio has planned to facilitate the development of the “Gowanus corridor,” an area long-ignored because of proximity to the infamous waterway, known mainly as a conduit for sewage or a decent place to hide a body.

It’s now the location of two new development plans (Hudson Companies’ Public Place Site and Toll Brothers’ Gowanus Development), and that’s why everyone was there. Going forward will be easiest with, and nearly impossible without, community support.

That requires romancing locals. Owen Foote, founder of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, told me his group is going around to potential property owners asking for support. They’ve had success with several, who offered space or a donation, although one has proved deaf to their concerns. “On the corner, Whole Foods is trying to develop something,” Foote says. “And we asked them, and they said, ‘Well…not really, we’re Whole Foods.”

“I have the real story,” said Bill Bob Zuckerman, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. “It’s that we’re between Park Slope to the east, right? Boerum Hill to the north, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill,” he went on, rotating me around. “So you have all these areas that have gotten very hot from real estate. Great neighborhoods to live in, people from Manhattan moving in…I’m one of them! And yet, you have this polluted waterway running through. So you know, it was only a matter of time before people started paying more attention to it.”

It seemed that every agency was there: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, NYPD, FDNY, NYC Parks and Recreation, and the Department of City Planning. (Mark Langan from Environmental Protection started things off by reminding the audience, “You might know us as the sewer department…we’re actually the water and sewer department.”) There were representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers (dredging!) and people from the Gowanus Canal Study. The NYPD promised graffiti clean up and “block watches” while the FDNY proffered more fire trucks. Andy from the M.T.A. revealed a “rehabilitation plan” for the F line.

Even a Toll Brothers vice president and project manager were there, although they both declined to comment.

Was anyone concerned about the increasingly unfriendly climate for real estate and major redevelopment projects?

“The construction probably won’t begin for a year,” Langan said as he described dredging the canal. “Though the funding is already in the budget. Thank God.”

“Nobody swims in the Gowanus Canal,” Zuckerman reminded me after the event, describing a planned “sponge park” to soak up excess rainwater so the sewers don’t overflow.

Have they tried that anywhere else?

“Portland,” he said. “Of course, lefty Portland.” Romancing Gowanus