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Gowanus coalition seeks added environmental protections amid rezoning

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Locals are calling for a special district that would mitigate some of the area’s longstanding environmental issues

The Gowanus Canal
Max Touhey

On the heels of last week’s storm that caused extreme flooding and blackouts across the region, a coalition of Gowanus community groups is calling on the city to ramp up infrastructure commitments in a proposed neighborhood rezoning that’s expected to lure some 18,000 people to the flood-prone area.

The Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition For Justice (GNCJ), a cadre of groups that banded together in 2017 to advocate for the neighborhood’s low-income tenants amid the rezoning, is renewing its calls for the city to create an Environmental Special District within the rezoning area that would address the neighborhood’s longstanding environmental issues.

Among those troubles is mitigating the condition of untreated waste from combined sewage overflow (CSOs) that spew into the Gowanus Canal when the city’s sewer system is overwhelmed by runoff from heavy rains. The area’s sewer infrastructure will face extra duress following the rezoning, which the city estimates will create 8,200 new apartments in the neighborhood by 2035 and allow buildings up to 22 stories along parts of the waterfront. One canal-adjacent lot would be permitted to build up to 30 stories.

Environmental officials and locals fear the added waste could undo years of work to revitalize the canal, which is in the midst of a federal Superfund cleanup, if strict mitigation measures are not put in place. Officials with the Department of City Planning (DCP) say it is working on a strategy to combat sewage overflow and is planning a bundle of infrastructure improvements for the area.

“Rezoning Gowanus will result in a cleaner Gowanus Canal and neighborhood,” Department of City Planning spokesperson Joe Marvilli told Curbed in May. “DCP is working closely with DEP on solutions to sewer overflow, including plans for facilities that will intercept sewage before it reaches the canal and nearly $41.5 million in infrastructure upgrades in the Industrial Business Zone. We will keep the community up to date on additional strategies in Gowanus.”

GNCJ’s proposed Environmental Special District would establish specific targets to ensure there isn’t a net increase in sewage overflow and energy demands post rezoning. Community groups have long called for the city to develop a mitigation plan for the increased flow of waste, and sought to sustain the canal at the EPA’s 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria that would allow people to engage with the water without getting sick. (A 2007 sample of canal water found traces of gonorrhea.)

The Gowanus coalition is also calling on the city to invest in local parks and increase the urban tree canopy, mitigate flooding and provide support for emergency preparedness, and improve health and social resiliency by addressing critical capital needs at the neighborhood’s three NYCHA campuses.

The Gowanus Houses, Wyckoff Garden Houses, and the Warren Street Houses—which together face a combined capital need of over $336 million—were excluded from the rezoning proposal’s study zone. As Curbed previously reported, 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.

“Red Hook and the Gowanus public housing residents have been environmentally burdened by indoor and outdoor toxins for decades,” said Karen Blondel of GCNJ member organization Turning the Tide. “Before any rezoning takes place in Gowanus, we need assurances that the new development will have a net zero increase of sewage into the Gowanus Canal. We need an Environmental Special District—not a re-polluted canal and community.”