Friday, May 21, 2010

Reconsidering-Gowanus? by Daniel Bush - QueensLedger

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Planning the redevelopment of an urban industrial neighborhood as promising and complex as Gowanus takes time. Luckily, everyone involved in the effort has ten to 12 years to figure it out.

That's the length of time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated it will need to carry out a Superfund cleanup of the Gowanus Canal. The timetable-inspired fierce debate from Superfund opponents lasted through most of last year, however, now that the EPA's plan is in place a new consensus is emerging around the redevelopment prospects of the gritty canal-side neighborhood.

Yes, uncertainty over the scope and logistics of the Superfund cleanup will delay the long-sought-for transformation of the area, which is sandwiched between several affluent neighborhoods. But that might not be such a bad thing, after all.

At a recent CUNY forum aptly-titled “Reconsidering Gowanus,” public policy makers, real estate experts, and community groups that are taking the long view described the ten-year pause brought on by the Superfund cleanup as an opportunity to reassess the neighborhood's future before moving forward with plans to change it.

The high-profile conference was the first large meeting of stakeholders since the EPA announced its Superfund listing last month.

Its timing, and the sweeping report on the neighborhood unveiled at the forum, were intended to shift the focus of public discussion from the science of cleaning the canal - which is now firmly in the hands of the federal government - to the surrounding community.

The report identifies Gowanus, population 28,000, as an area bounded by Bergen Street to the north, Fourth Avenue to the east, the Gowanus Expressway to the south, and Court Street to the west.

The data on business, housing, and demographic trends shows the tiny community - which is defined by the canal and its industrial heritage, as well as by its proximity to transportation and desirable communities such as Carroll Gardens and Park Slope - is poised to explode, if new residential and commercial development can successfully be mixed in with the neighborhood's existing industrial base.

After a steady post-war decline, Gowanus experienced a major resurgence in the 1990's, according to Harry Schwartz, one of the co-authors of the report, which relied mostly on data from the 2000 Census. Since then, property values have increased, and the neighborhood's residents as a whole have become increasingly prosperous and better educated.

And thanks to an influx of creative young professionals and artists, the community has gained a reputation for its under-the-radar arts scene; Marty Markowtiz, Brooklyn's borough president, called the area the “indie adjunct” of Brooklyn's better-known BAM cultural district.

But is Gowanus a true “Soho in the making if left alone” in the coming years, as Staurt Pertz, a former member of the City Planning Commission, suggested at the forum. And how will it respond to the development boom that is sure to follow the Superfund cleanup?

“Gowanus is going to become more like its wealthy neighbors like Park Slope and Boerum Hill and so on,” if the current wave of gentrification continues, said Schwartz. However, he said, “there's a chance we can change that trend.”

That's the challenge facing community groups, which will use the next several years to argue for a comprehensive neighborhood rezoning that includes plenty of affordable housing, space for local businesses and artists, and public parkland along a revitalized canal corridor.

The city drafted plans to rezone 25 blocks inside of Gowanus several years ago, but put them on hold last year after the EPA became involved with cleaning the canal. The plan would have set aside more land for manufacturing uses, while creating broad swaths of low and high-density mixed-use zones to encourage development.

“We believe that we've come up with a pretty balanced approach,” Purnima Kapur, the director of City Planning's Brooklyn office, said at the forum. She said the city is “waiting to see how the Superfund will affect the city's plans” before resuming the rezoning process.

Whenever it does, the city must also contend with the neighborhood's growing polarization along racial and socioeconomic lines. While Gowanus has improved in general in the past two decades, several sections of the neighborhood have been left behind.

For example, the CUNY report found that in the two largely Hispanic census tracts situated in the rougher pockets of Gowanus east and southeast of the canal, the number of people living below the poverty line rose 32 and 62 percent, respectively, between 1980 and 2000.

In contrast, during the same time period, poverty declined by 38 percent in the two mostly-white census tracts northwest of the canal, situated in affluent Carroll Gardens,

Overall, the data shows the richer, whiter areas of the neighborhood have become wealthier, while the southeast section of Gowanus is home to a growing number of low-income Latinos.

A third of the mostly African-American residents in the neighborhood's public housing developments live below the poverty line, according to the report.