Don’t ‘superfund’ the Gowanus
WHO should clean up the Gowanus Canal? The city’s been masterminding a series of reclamation projects since 2002 — but now the federal Environmental Protection Agency is looking to designate it a Superfund site.
Superfund might bring in more money for the task — but it will certainly lock up the site for years, and probably decades.
The 1.8-mile-long Gowanus flows right through the heart of rejuvenating brownstone Brooklyn — bordered by Carroll Gardens and Red Hook to the west, Park Slope on the southeast and Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill to the north. And it’s toxic — loaded with vile substances such as pesticides, coal tar, metals and gonorrhea bacteria.
Until recent years, the Gowanus was abandoned by all but neighborhood activists. The site was industrial going back to the 1860s, even “hosting” coal-gasification plants. Even today, the city sewers dump 300 million gallons a year of raw waste into the canal.
Nonetheless, old-time home-owning families, newly arrived artists and gentrifiers, public-housing residents and small-business owners fought tenaciously to attract new investment and get government’s attention for remediating the canal and the surrounding land.
By last year, their efforts were paying off — as the Army Corps of Engineers moved to complete its feasibility study for restoring the canal’s ecological health via dredging, and the city’s housing agency chose a development consortium to build market-rate and affordable housing, with generous public space as well.
Now the neighborhood finds itself with two contradictory government clean-up plans — one federal, one local — and with virulent disagreements about which is better.
The federal Superfund promises big money extracted from the bad-guy industrialists who dumped waste into the canal for 150 years. But the Bloomberg administration, with the Corps, could deliver results far sooner — indeed, the Superfund’s involvement has put the local plans on hold.
At a public meeting last spring, the EPA’s Walter Mugdan told the irate community that only the federal government has the money to restore an urban waterway this degraded. But in fact, the feds don’t actually come up with the necessary money. Instead, they designate the site toxic — driving off all prospective private investment — and then search for past polluters (“potentially responsible parties”) to sue into producing the funds.
In the years since Gowanus was first opened to industry and shipping in the 1860s, it has seen some 1,500 property owners come and go — only a few of whom can be identified today. And Superfund would likely require decades of research and litigation before the feds actually start doing anything. Remember — the Hudson and Passaic Rivers were designated as Superfund sites in 1984; a quarter-century later, their cleanup has only just begun.
Plus, the Gowanus polluter owners that can be identified — such as National Grid, on behalf of its predecessor companies — have already pledged to partner with the city to fund the cleanup.
In a case like this, in which the past polluters’ incentives “to fight are so high, a key factor in getting through the logjam is getting people to do it willingly,” notes Cas Holloway, chief of staff to Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for operations. National Grid has stepped up, and the city argues that others will, too.
Meanwhile, the threat of Superfund is also undoing the rest of of the Bloomberg strategy — private investment and development. A recent study by the Department of City Planning concluded that 68 projects — residential, retail, medical and commercial — are ready for development. But few if any will get financing (or environmental insurance!) if the feds designate the site as toxic.
These projects are now on hold, waiting for the Superfund controversy to resolve itself. And as the Gowanus neighborhood has bitterly learned, being on hold is tantamount to not happening.
The controversy has also frozen the process for rezoning the area, whose “industrial” status has helped keep it fallow. And that has halted affordable-housing projects that were OKd last year.
For example, Public Place, a six-acre contaminated site, was to be cleaned up and developed by real-estate firm Hudson Cos. with 774 apartments (541 below market) and a public park joining a waterfront esplanade. The owner of an adjoining warehouse announced last spring that he was interested in incorporating his land into the site, building another 500 affordable apartments.
Now, says Hudson partner Alan Bell, they’ve halted the project: “We’ve spent a lot of money to get to this point — but we’re now in limbo because of the potential Superfund designation.”
He’s worried that a golden opportunity may be lost: “It would be different if the city had been doing nothing, like 10 years ago, but this is happening just as the city plans to fix the flushing tunnel, the Corps of Engineers is ready to start dredging and National Grid was going to take away the goop from the gasification plant.”
Perhaps someone will benefit if Superfund goes ahead anyway — but it won’t be any of the neighborhoods around the canal. What Gowanus needs is for Superfund to back off so the city and the Corps can clean up the canal and clear the way for the investment that’s already lined up.
Opinion: Julia Vitullo-Martin is director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Re gional Plan Association.