Superfund Nomination, Development, and the Economy: What They Mean for the Future of the Gowanus Canal
(Photo accessed on www.nyc.org)
The Gowanus Canal has the Hudson River beat when it comes to water pollution. Located in Brooklyn, the Gowanus Canal "is one of the most heavily contaminated water bodies in the nation," according to Riverkeeper. Alongside the canal, which was constructed in the mid-19th century, industrial projects sprang up-manufactured gas factories, cement plants, tanneries, oil refineries, and chemical factories, among others.
In the recent years, however, a new type of industry has become interested in constructing along the canal-real estate and other types of developers. In an article I came across in this past weekend's The New York Times Magazine, contributing writer Andrew Rice profiles this new industrial boom. In "On the Waterfront," Rice delineates four new major development projects in the proposal phase for the Gowanus Canal area: 1. Gowanus Canal condo or rental building (360 proposed units) 2. Toll Brothers condos and town houses (450 proposed units) 3. Gowanus Green mixed-use complex (770 proposed units) 4. Whole Foods store.
Though developers see the value in the waterfront property, the canal has gained an infamous reputation for its unacceptable levels of contamination over the past century. With polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sewage waste, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and storm water runoff, the canal has become "a vast wasteland," says Bill Appel, head of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation. Since the canal hasn't been fully dredged since the 1970s because of the intricacy and high cost of the process, samples from the canal's bottom reveal a multitude of chemicals, some of which are now prohibited for factory usage. Correspondingly, in its regular water testing, Riverkeeper has uncovered dangerous levels of pathogens.
This past April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it had nominated the Gowanus Canal to be listed on the Federal Superfund National Priorities List, indicating that the canal is among the country's top hazardous waste sites. If the canal is granted Superfund status, the EPA will be able to initiate a thorough study of the scope of pollution and outline plans to carry out a long-needed remediation.
Although environmental groups such as Riverkeeper support adding the Gowanus Canal to the Superfund list, other groups aren't so enthused-namely the developers who wish to construct posh complexes on the waterfront lots. The effects that the possible Superfund designation and cleanup could have on development include long-term delayed construction and backing out of development deals. The Bloomberg administration has also strongly disputed the Superfund proposition, stating that the process is controversial and, as the developers argue, long-winded.
For the developers, it seems as though the Superfund designation should be the least of their worries. With the Superfund status aside, the recent economic downturn has made many of the homebuilders and businessmen rethink their development near the Gowanus Canal. As Rice notes in his article, net losses and decreased sales have put much of the development plans on hold. While I am in no way opposed to the proposed development, I hope that the builders can realize that it is in both their best interest, as well as the interest of the future residents and consumers of their planned residences and stores, to allow proper remediation of the sites along the Gowanus Canal. Until proper cleanup of the area is performed, whether it is through Superfund status or not, I believe that development should be put on hold. Perhaps the halt provided by the current state of the economy can help make the developers come to this realization.