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Gowanus Canal sewage overflow draws neighborhood concerns pre-rezoning

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One Assembly member says she is worried about the “city’s lack of focus on the sustainability of this area”

The Gowanus Canal
Max Touhey

Environmental watchdogs fear a city-led rezoning to reshape Gowanus from a low-rise industrial area to a dense hub of residential development will inundate the Brooklyn neighborhood’s toxic canal with millions more gallons of raw sewage and work against a federal effort to clean up the waterway.

The Gowanus Canal is in the midst of a Superfund cleanup led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revitalize the heavily polluted body of water. Oftentimes when the city’s sewer system is overwhelmed by run off from heavy rains, untreated waste from Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) spew into the canal’s waters—which will flood Gowanus when another Hurricane Sandy-level storm hits.

To preserve the cleanup, the city is investing in two massive sewage tanks to divert some of that waste until it can be treated, but the proposed rezoning is expected to lure 18,000 new residents to the neighborhood and doesn’t factor in mitigation for the surge of sewage created by that increase in population. Lawmakers and environmental advocates say the city must develop a plan to take “responsible care of our environment” or it will undo years of work to clean the canal.

“I’m very concerned about the city’s lack of focus on the sustainability of this area,” said state Assembly member Jo Anne Simon, who represents Gowanus, at a recent city-hosted meeting to gather input on the proposed rezoning. “[Zoning documents] say it looks to become a model green neighborhood, create livable spaces, productive neighborhood for generations to come, but I don’t see how the city can expect to become a model green neighborhood without taking into account the CSO problems we have.”

The Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, which works with the EPA on the cleanup, issued the Department of City Planning a series of recommendations on ways to measure how the rezoning’s proposed density—which the city estimates will create 8,200 new apartments by 2035 and allow buildings up to 22 stories along parts of the waterfront with one lot allowed to rise 30 stories—will increase the sewage overflow at each outfall along the canal without counting CSO reduction already required under the federal cleanup.

Canal advocates urge the city to model increases to individual discharge points and the impact that would have at each site, develop a mitigation plan for the increased flow of waste, and work to sustain the canal at the EPA’s 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria so people can engage with the water without getting sick before major residential development is allowed along the canal.

“I just want to make clear that right now we have an opportunity to do right and give the community that’s already here today a water quality that they deserve, let alone the proposed residents that will come, not to do so would be irresponsible,” said Chrissy Remein, a water quality project coordinator with environmental non-profit Riverkeeper, speaking on behalf of the canal advisory group at the meeting.

The Gowanus Canal and the land that lines it banks has a legacy of pollution that the city is ignoring to build new housing, charged another environmental advocate.

“This is about environmental justice,” said Joseph Alexiou, the author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal. “Plumes of toxic coal tar extend down deeper under these sites than anybody can actually measure. You’re proposing to build totally out-of-scale, 30-story buildings on toxic waste sites that are in flood zones.”

And many find the density of that development troubling. Simon called the rezoning “way too tall, way too dense” and says the current proposal “just goes too far.”

“We have never really talked anywhere near 22 stories of density, even the 14 stories of density in the past was not something that was widely supported by the community, and so I’m very concerned about this inching up,” Simon told city planners. “So much of this is overreaching.”

Largely absent from the city’s zoning proposal are the area’s three New York City Housing Authority complexs—the Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Garden Houses, and the Warren Street Houses which have a combined capital need of over $336 million—were excluded from the rezoning proposal’s study zone. Public housing tenants and community organizers have voiced fierce opposition to the rezoning without capital commitments to the neighborhood’s NYCHA residents and its inclusion in the city’s study area.

“I think there needs to be a clear tool that takes some of the benefits [and gives back to NYCHA]” said Michael Higgins Jr., a community organizer with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE). “People in public housing, people’s whose landlord is the city, should benefit from a city-led process.”