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In Gowanus, Stalled Canal Clean-Up Leads Community & Developers to Align

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Joseph Alexiou is the author of Gowanus: Brooklyn's Curious Canal and a former editor at Time Out New York. He's also licensed New York City tourguide and unabashed francophile.

Soon, the EPA is due to announce a critical decision for the cleanup of Brooklyn's putrid Gowanus Canal: where the city must install an enormous sewage retention tank, capable of holding eight million gallons. (An announcement was expected by February 23, but it was pushed back as of today.) This underground structure is designed to capture a great deal of the hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage that would otherwise flow directly into the polluted waterway, particularly during periods of heavy rain. The decision will finally address a 150 year-old catastrophe of urban planning and environment—and provide an answer that was already due months ago.

Representing New York City as one of the major responsible parties for polluting the canal, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), announced at a public meeting in June that it would like to place the tanks under 234 Butler Street, a privately-owned commercial site at the head of the Gowanus. Meanwhile, the EPA technical team has long suggested placing the tanks under the nearby Thomas Greene Playground, a city-owned park and pool that services neighborhood residents, including those who live in nearby public housing complexes.

The final arbiter of this decision is Judith Enck, the EPA region 2 Administrator. If she allows the DEP to move forward with its plan, the city (which is legally bound to execute and pay for the cleanup) will seize the private land via eminent domain—a potentially expensive strategy that could add years of litigation to the process and cost taxpayers an additional $100 million for acquisition. Furthermore, the plan is one that the community now actively opposes. But if she moves forward with her team's chosen schematics, the beloved "Double-D" Pool in Thomas Greene Park could be closed for an estimated four years, and an interim pool would be required during this period.

In 2013, head EPA engineer Christos Tsiamis and legal counsel Brian Carr had suggested Thomas Greene Playground because the city already owned the land (eliminating the time and cost of acquisition) and also because it sits over a migrating plume of liquid coal tar at least 100 feet deep—a toxic hazard that must be removed anyway. The EPA technical team has long held that combining the efforts of extracting the waste and placing the tank, all while designing a better park, would be the swiftest and most cost effective way to solve the environmental disaster that has plagued the area for generations. But according to DEP estimations from the June 2015 announcement, the pool closure could last up to nine years, not four, and tank construction could cost upwards of $500 million—a whopping ten times higher than the EPA's estimation. The park would also lose approximately a quarter of its surface space to a "head house" structure needed to service the tank.

Enck's technical and legal teams immediately disputed the DEP's estimations of the construction timeline and tank costs as inflated, the size of the head house as subject to debate, and the timeline for eminent domain vastly underestimated. As negotiations became increasingly tense, the decision was pushed back to the fall of 2015, then again to the holiday season. Until the June 2015 announcement, the community had been divided in its support of the EPA's park plan, and some groups had even hosted protests to try to save the pool, despite the necessary toxic cleanup. But once the possibility of eminent domain entered into consideration, community members at large began questioning the wisdom of the city's plan.

Here's where the story gets really interesting: Salvatore Tagliavia, the owner of the land at 234 Butler, emerged from obscurity at a public meeting just days before Christmas alongside partners of the Brooklyn-based firm Alloy Development, who announced plans to develop a pair of four-story commercial buildings on the site in question. Alloy and Tagliavia then publicly promised to donate half of their land as a permanent park if the city agrees not to seize the property via eminent domain. They also proposed park designs that would allow the head house to remain in Thomas Greene Playground without a loss of public surface area. DEP Associate Commissioner Eric Landau and NYC Parks Commissioner Kevin Jeffreys, present at the meeting, were not immediately convinced by the plan: "It is a very intriguing idea but it does not eliminate all of the City's concerns," Jeffreys said. "We want to make sure that we do not reduce the current footprint of Thomas Greene Park."

Despite the city's reservations, community sentiment quickly shifted in support of Alloy's plan, which offers no opposition to the EPA's original 2013 schema. Letters poured in from community groups like the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Thomas Greene Park, the Fifth Avenue Committee, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy asking the DEP and EPA to consider the developer's ideas—an unusual turn of events compared to most of Brooklyn's grassroots activism regarding development.

At this point, choosing the city's plan would place Enck in opposition not only with the community, but also her own technical team's recommendations. This past January at a poorly attended community meeting, team director Walter Mugdan announced further deadline pushback and questions of "policy" that were holding up the decision.

Up until recent weeks, Enck remained silent about the final decision, now eight months overdue. But in a recent phone interview, she explained, "Urban open space is of great importance to us, especially in this underserviced community. We could have all the benefits of the tanks without putting them on the pool site. There are environmental justice concerns with taking away this park—forty thousand people used it last year" (a statistic that Enck says comes from the NYC Parks Department).

"I can anticipate your next question," she then continued, unprompted. "I'm under no political pressure to consider anything other than the timely placement of these tanks." If such political pressure did exist, it would explain why the city has been given such leeway to argue for their plan—although the end goal of such a conspiracy is unclear. Recent editorials on the blog Pardon Me for Asking questioned the nature of Enck's hesitation, likely prompting her defensive position.

Regarding Alloy's proposal, Enck had little to say: "If the city wants to take up plans with a developer in this neighborhood, that is a New York City issue, not an EPA issue." Enck also deflected questions about the possibility of eminent domain being used to seize the land: "I am not going to comment on city policies; eminent domain is city policy." Representatives from Alloy declined to comment, as did representatives from the DEP.

When asked if the fact that her term is ending this year could have any influence on such a complicated decisions, Enck replied "There is zero consideration given to anything other than environmental justice and repair. We work every day towards solving environmental issues…I'm offended by your question, and you can quote me on that. And I have no idea what I'm doing next." A decision is expected in the near future, so Enck's intentions will soon become clearer—for better or worse.—Joseph Alexiou