GOWANUS – The NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) and the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) hosted a Community Workshop Thursday night to collect feedback on the preliminary site planning for Public Place.
Public Place is the largest city-owned site in Brooklyn Community District 6, occupying nearly six acres at the intersection of Smith and 5th Streets adjacent to the Gowanus Canal. Approximately four acres of privately-owned land just south of the site will also be developed as part of the overall project.
“This is a large site, about five and a half acres that HPD put out a request for proposals for back for in 2007,” explained Leila Bozorg, Deputy Commissioner of Neighborhood Strategies at HPD. The RFP sought a team for a mixed-use development on the underutilized ten acres of land that would include affordable housing, community facilities, commercial/retail space, and open space.
“We designated a development team in 2008 for a project that was called Gowanus Green at the time,” Bozorg said. That team consists of Hudson Companies, Jonathan Rose, Fifth Avenue Committee, and the Bluestone Organization. Some representatives of the team attended Thursday’s meeting “to listen to feedback and start thinking about how to incorporate that into future visions for the site,” Bozorg added.
“In 2008 the Gowanus Canal was nominated to be designated as a Superfund site because of the contamination,” Bozorg continued. “In 2010 the U.S. EPA officially designated it a Superfund site so that really put our plans for Public Place and Gowanus Green on pause. We feel a lot has changed since 2008 in the city and in Gowanus and that’s part of why we want to take a step back from the original vision for the site.”
Along with approximately two and a half acres of open space, the original Gowanus Green proposal included 770 units of housing—75% set aside for affordable units and 25% for market-rate apartments.
Noting the city’s population growth, significant changes in the real estate market, and “a much deeper and broader demand for affordable housing at a range of incomes,” Bozorg said the project will now provide 100% affordable housing, offering between 850 to 1,000 below-market units. “Feeling the effect of that affordability crisis in the city and in Gowanus specifically, we wanted to make sure that we are providing as much affordable housing as we can on some of these scarce public sites.”
To address the need for more school seats in District 15, another change to the original plan includes the possibility of adding a school on the site.
The gymnasium of PS 32 was set up with ten round tables equipped with maps of the site and props to be used in exercises. Facilitators were assigned to each table to discuss the six core goals of the development project:
- Support clean up and remediation of the site
- Create a sustainable, resilient, environmentally healthy community
- Build a network of parks and open spaces in Gowanus
- Create and preserve affordable housing for all people, especially those with the lowest incomes
- Support community and economic development for a thriving neighborhood
- Create an inclusive neighborhood that is integrated and accessible for all.
The facilitators also led participants through a series of exercises that focused on: what they want the site to provide (ample green space, employment opportunities, a creative/maker facility); the physical dimensions and site massing (e.g. building high in order to maximize green space); and uses for the open space (accessibility, connection to the waterfront, native plantings, historic interpretation, play areas, green roofs). [Note: these are only some of the responses from the table where BKLYNER sat.]
Participants placed photos showing various activities onto the map to show what types of amenities they’d like on the property and blocks were stacked to indicate how high and dense they’d like to see the development built.
The map included a proposed street network on the site to provide access and serve as view corridors. While many agreed that accessibility and views leading to the waterfront were important, they were opposed to allowing vehicular traffic on the site.
Another point of contention arose midway through the workshop when Joseph Alexiou unexpectedly addressed the crowd declaring that a contaminated Superfund site is not appropriate for housing.
“This is a multiple year legacy, since 1861 a manufactured gas petroleum [facility] dumped into this land. Remediation means removing some of it, not all of it. They can’t afford to and would never remove all of it,” he said. “Putting blocks in front of us is infantilizing. We do not need to have more residential housing beyond six stories…. Let’s talk about reality. We haven’t yet agreed to put residential stuff here. Let’s talk about what the community needs most. Remediation is about putting there what is healthy and safe for the community, not putting affordable housing on a flood zone with a toxic waste site on top of it. That’s not exactly taking care of your community, is it?”
Longtime Gowanus resident Linda Mariano, who stood with Alexiou as he spoke, told BKLYNER following the meeting that she refused to participate in the Community Workshop because “it’s as phony as it can get.”
“We want to protect our neighborhood,” she said. “All we’re asking is for the government to stop the greed and corruption and be honest,” adding that she believes officials are “pretending it’s okay to build housing” on the site when Public Place should be for public use only and including the affordable housing component as bait. “It is toxic,” she says of the site. “It will forever be toxic.”
“There is certainly serious contamination on this site from the MGP [manufactured gas plant] facility, as well as on many other sites in Gowanus,” says Andrea Parker, Executive Director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. “However, no housing or public space is going to be built on the site until it is cleaned up, and there are multiple agencies on city, state and federal levels making sure this happens. While it’s important for the community to stay abreast of the contamination concerns and continue holding our agencies accountable, it is also important to have productive community engagement about the future of the site after it is cleaned up.”
While the EPA is cleaning the Gowanus Canal, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) is overseeing National Grid’s cleanup of the Gowanus Green site.
In response to Mariano’s argument that the site is reserved for public use, the site is called “Public Place” because that is how it appears on the city map, according to DCP, however, there is no official definition for a “Public Place.” The best description of a Public Place is a space that is reserved for a public purpose which is sometimes not clearly defined—that may or may not be zoned and may not generate development rights. They are typically established to allow for flexibility in use. Most areas designated as Public Places in NYC are used as public plazas. The term is not included in DCP’s zoning glossary.
Thursday’s Community Workshop follows the June release of DCP’s Gowanus rezoning framework that was developed after a year and a half of community members and stakeholders participating in more than 100 hours of workshops and working group meetings to provide feedback on how they’d like to see Gowanus reshaped. Yesterday’s meeting was to coordinate public input with the current work happening on the broader Gowanus Neighborhood Plan slated to be completed by the end of the year.
The notes and photos from each table at Thursday’s Community Workshop will be posted online. HPD and DCP plan to host another Community Workshop focusing on affordability and programming. The date and location for that meeting will be determined in the coming weeks.