Gowanus Canal Could Be New Model for Waterfront Planning

Avoiding the typical riverwalk.

Rendering of the Gowanus Lowlands (Credit: Scape)

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In the eight years since Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund site, and the 10 years since the formation of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, there’s been no dearth of visions for what’s one of the most polluted waterways in the U.S.

The GCC has been planting guerilla gardens on the salt marsh for nearly a decade, developing a variety of plants that grow well in the unusual ecosystem. Where 6th Street dead-ends into the canal, the nonprofit is experimenting with different types of bioswales to absorb the stormwater that is a major cause of contamination. All the while, industrial businesses have continued to operate in the waterway, and residential construction has begun to boom on its banks.

Now, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup slated to begin at last, GCC has partnered with landscape architecture firm Scape to develop a holistic vision for the Gowanus that can accommodate that diversity of uses and improve environmental quality, without sacrificing the waterway’s idiosyncratic character.

“It’s a turning point for us, and that’s because it’s a turning point for the neighborhood right now,” says GCC Executive Director Andrea Parker. The EPA is expected to start dredging parts of the canal in the next few years, while the city is considering a neighborhood rezone that could result in denser and taller housing. As that happens, developers will be required to contribute to public spaces, like the esplanade already built by the Lightstone Group on Bond Street.

But that space, says Parker, feels fairly privatized. And the city’s existing waterfront zoning codes could produce a landscape that’s just as sterile, “maybe better suited to an open waterway, like an ocean, as opposed to a narrow canal,” she says. A rezone could result in better tools for waterfront access and more effective city investment, “so it’s really critical that we right now have a vision for how all of those investments fit together,” says Parker.

Rendering of possible bankside designs (Credit: Scape)

The proposal released last week, Gowanus Lowlands, is only a framework that lists four broad goals: creating or maintaining a cleaner urban ecosystem, a better-connected community, a network of parks, and a wild urban waterway. An in-depth master plan, to be developed over the next six to nine months, will look more closely at improving transportation options, creating green spaces and increasing waterfront access.

Gena Wirth, a project lead at Scape, says the plan will focus not only on the banks of the Gowanus, but on the entire affected neighborhood and watershed. It will take into account existing and developing commercial corridors and industrial needs, and consider how to increase urban canopy on the canal’s northern stretch near a cluster of public housing properties — a major concern identified by neighbors during GCC’s recent two years of outreach.

Navigating the myriad players, landscapes and regulatory frameworks will be a process as complicated as the Gowanus itself. Some existing interventions will get to stay — like the Sponge Park designed by Dlandstudios, and the 6th Street green corridor where GCC is testing bioswales — while others will be sacrificed to the Superfund cleanup process. A 4-million-gallon sewage tank will replace the salt lot where GCC has been planting for years and where they recently built a compost site in collaboration with the New York City Department of Sanitation.

“It’s very strategic of the GCC to be pursuing this project at this time,” says Lee Altman, another Scape project lead. The master plan aims to be not a static document but a process that will guide how the nonprofit, city, developers and other entities can work together. Over the coming months, says Parker, she’ll be talking to city officials about what is possible with the proposed rezone and new waterfront access plan.

“I really see the landscape here as something that can mediate some of the conflicts that we currently face with all of the diversity in the neighborhood,” she says. One conflict: With heavy truck traffic, the neighborhood’s still pretty hairy for cyclists where the Brooklyn Greenway crosses the canal. And though Red Hook is just on the other side of Interstate 278, it’s hard to get to from Gowanus. “That’s a pinch point I’d really like to address,” says Parker.

The plan will also consider how to create park-like spaces that aren’t your typical riverwalk. Talking to residents, “really they want texture,” says Parker. “Gowanus right now has so much character, and there’s a lot of concern that we’re going to lose that with new development.” She’d like to see different heights maintained, so that at some places people can access the waterfront, and in other they’ll have panoramic views from on high.

Rendering of possible bankside designs (Credit: Scape)

Rendering of possible bankside designs (Credit: Scape)

The plan will also look at designs for street ends. Some might end up absorbing stormwater; others could provide access down to the canal. “In a lot of areas around the canal you can be very, very close to it and not even know that it’s there,” says Wirth.

All these changes will be a long time coming. Parker estimates it will be at least 15 years before the Superfund work is complete. In that time, the public’s perception of the Gowanus is likely to change, as it has during the last decade of GCC stewardship. “I think people understand the issue a lot more than they maybe did at one point,” says Parker. Combined sewer overflows and other sources of contamination have become more of a known quantity, but that doesn’t mean Parker wants to retire urban legends about three-eyed fish just yet.

“I think that kind of storytelling about the Gowanus is really important,” she says. “The amount of urban myth and power that this waterway holds as the place that built Brooklyn, as a salt marsh that a regiment is buried in somewhere, I think that’s the stuff we really don’t want to lose.”

And she doesn’t want the public to become blinded to the true wildness of the landscape. Just a few weeks ago, a nearby venue where the GCC was hosting its 10-year anniversary party, flooded in a storm.

“And that’s what it is,” says Parker. “That’s what this place is. You can’t take away this underlying landscape, which is a salt marsh and a tidal estuary. And it’s really critical that with all of these changes that we don’t end up with a sanitized landscape.”

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.

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Tags: new york cityurban planningstormwater managementwaterfronts

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