Murky Waters

Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to transform Gowanus could be a developer's dream or an environmental nightmare.
Published April 10, 2021 | 5 min read

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to see massive new housing, some of it for low-income New Yorkers, along the banks of the notoriously fetid Gowanus Canal, a plan that will test his ability to satisfy a host of competing interests.

And quite likely determine what New York looks like over the next decade, given that what he’s eyeing for the area is seen as a litmus test for the type of development City Hall will support in the future.

This week the Hatch Institute partnered with the New York Times in delving into the mayor’s ambitious attempt to transform one of New York’s most polluted areas into a shimmering attraction, featuring an esplanade, fancy shops and towers with about 8,000 new apartments, a portion on city-owned land for families earning $53,000 or less per year.

With the canal finally getting dredged, he’s touting the benefits of the project — more diversity to Gowanus and surrounding neighborhoods, more affordable housing for people who desperately need it, and an economic kickstart for a city reeling financially from the pandemic.

But opponents are pushing back with an array of troubling concerns.

They point out that most of the gains will go to wealthy developers, while the proposed doubling of the population of Gowanus and Carroll Gardens could overwhelm the neighbhorhoods’ schools, transportation and sewer systems.

But beyond straining infrastructure, the mayor’s plan also could invite an environmental disaster due to the toxicity of the land where all those new resident are slated to live, they argue.

It’s not just the canal that requires cleaning. The city-owned plot sits on a massive pool of coal tar, a dangerous carcinogen, and only a small fraction of it will be removed. Officials claim all is well, that their proposed remediation will eliminate any health threats.

Yet it’s still to be determined what, exactly, will be done to protect all the new arrivals from rising coal tar fumes — a concern shared by the project manager of the canal’s Superfund scrubbing — or what might occur should another storm flood the zone, as Hurricane Sandy did, when waters in Gowanus rose by nearly 10 feet.

“Private developers, some with very bad reputations, want to come in and make a lot of money, from which the city gets little to nothing,” one Carroll Gardens resident told The Hatch Institute.

“And in return our neighborhood gets high-rises it doesn’t have the infrastructure for, built on top of toxic land they’re not remediating particularly well, where the most toxic land is reserved for low-income housing.”

We encourage you to read the story, co-reported by Mihir Zaveri, a Times staff reporter, and Brad Hamilton, editor of the Hatch Institute.

Let us know what you think.

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