Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gowanus: Big Development Can Wait

Dave Sanders for The New York Times
The Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, divided by the Gowanus Canal, lies between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope.
WHEN a baby whale lost its way and wandered into the mouth of the Gowanus Canal in 2007, it was christened Sludgie the Whale.

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The name stuck. When Sludgie died after two days of rescue attempts, there was sadness but little surprise. Something from the natural world had found itself in one of the most unnatural places in the country.
Over the years, pollution and neglect have turned the canal into a fetid stew of dangerous chemicals and toxins, an embodiment of the worst excesses of the industrial age. As if that were not enough, every heavy rain washes in fresh tides of raw sewage.
This is hardly the kind of image one would expect to draw homeowners to the neighborhood.
But developers came, envisioning Brooklyn’s next big thing. Nothing, it seemed, could slow the rush, not even the sputtering housing market.
The city moved aggressively to rezone much of the area for residential development and spent millions of dollars on new infrastructure — even as it planned major environmental cleanup efforts. One of the nation’s largest developers, Toll Brothers, planned a luxury condo complex with the canal as a central feature. Another developer planned to transform a six-acre contaminated site into a complex with more than 700 units, including a large number of affordable apartments.
Cutting through two of Brooklyn’s most expensive neighborhoods, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, the 50 blocks around the 1.8-mile-long canal are dotted with forlorn industrial buildings, warehouses and empty lots, meaning plenty of room for large construction projects, a rarity in this crowded city. With prices soaring for homes only a block from the canal, the potential value of the land outweighed the negatives.
That is, until the canal was designated a federal Superfund site last spring. 
Property owners around the canal who had been holding out for the highest price suddenly had no takers.
“We had hundreds of developers knocking at our door,” said Danny Tinneny, who owns several blocks along the canal. “Now, no one.”
With a decade of remediation on the horizon, building on the banks of the canal suddenly had the appeal of building on the hills of Vesuvius.
It has been a year since the developers stopped calling. But something interesting has happened in the interim. A different kind of development, which had been slowly but surely transforming the neighborhood before developers got interested, is now taking advantage of the halt in large-scale building.
Artists and small businesses priced out of other neighborhoods have been taking up residence in the old warehouses. Nightclubs have popped up on streets that taxi repair shops and truck depots once dominated. Restaurants, bars and bakeries have all moved in, creating a scene that longtime Brooklyn residents compare to Dumbo before the multimillion-dollar lofts and Williamsburg before Bedford Avenue became a destination.
The Gowanus neighborhood finds itself at a crossroads, with an opportunity to think afresh about the best way to develop postindustrial land.
“Superfund provided a much-needed pause in the headlong rush to develop the area,” said David Briggs, an architect and a founder of Gowanus by Design, a group created, according to its mission statement, in “reaction to significant community concerns with the planning process in the Brooklyn neighborhoods around the Gowanus Canal.”
“There is a place here, a special place that died and was left a terrible mess,” Mr. Briggs said. “It is now going to go through a long-term rebirth. It needs to be developed as a divergent, rich, textured community.”
The Proteus Gowanus gallery at Nevins and Union Streets on the canal is part art space, part museum and part performance space — and an example of a grass-roots business. Other newcomers include the Gowanus Studio Space, the Brooklyn Artists Gym and Pace Prints. Then there are the designers, light manufacturers and publishers setting up shop at the Old American Can Factory. And the Gowanus Dredgers have long organized canoe and kayak trips along the canal, offering a bankside glimpse at the city’s industrial past — and at a handful of houseboats.

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