Friday, November 26, 2010

Development Flows Slowly Along Gowanus And Newtown - As Predicted, Superfund Designation Supersedes Building Plans in Brooklyn by Laura Nahmias - City Hall News

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Superfund designations at Newtown Creek on the Queens/ Brooklyn border in October and at the Gowanus Canal last March incited panicked waves among developers and city administrators worried over the impact the label could have on growth in the city's most populous borough.

And the worries have only continued to fester, like the gonorrhea in the Gowanus.

The designation at Newtown Creek did not spur as much vocal debate as the Gowanus designation, but there is still potential for the label to have an adverse impact on the city’s hopes for economic development in the area, in Brooklyn and Queens, according to Marc LaVorgna, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office.

The Bloomberg administration openly opposed the Superfund designation at Gowanus, advocating for an alternate cleanup plan that would allow prospective developers to voluntarily contribute funds for the work.

The 140-year-old, four-mile-long canal is lined with thick sludge from years of toxic dumping, most from untraceable sources.

At Gowanus, Toll Brothers planned to stop building a $250 million development if the designation were approved, and when it was, they did. The Bloomberg administration was not pleased.

The parties responsible for the pollution at Newtown, on the other hand, are well known—ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron, along with several industrial companies along the waterfront. The city supported the designation at Newtown because there was “no other way to clean it up,” Lavorgna said.

One reason the designation at Newtown may have been less openly controversial is that locals already associate the neighborhood with toxicity. There is nothing wrong with the neighborhood’s water, but residents still use Brita filters anyway. The neighborhood is downwind from one of the city’s sewage treatment plants. Locals call the area “Stinkpoint.”

More importantly, awareness has been growing of the massive oil spill, under the neighborhood’s northern end, since it was first discovered in 1978; over the past several years, environmental impact studies, news articles and a lawsuit from the attorney general’s office have helped publicize the presence of oil—an amount scientists have estimated to reach 17 million gallons, or three times the size of the Exxon-Valdez spill.

According to Assembly Member Joe Lentol, who represents the part of Brooklyn affected by the designation, the Super-fund label is a relief.

“People are optimistic that something is finally happening,” he said of his constituents.

Lentol, who grew up in Brooklyn and says he swam in Newtown Creek as a child, used to believe the designation would drive down property values in the area, he said.

“My misgivings were that, you know, I don’t want the people of Greenpoint to think they’re living in such a contaminated place that they’re going to move out. I don’t want them to think that their property values would be lowered. It’s a delicate issue for people who live here. A lot of people remember Love Canal, and when they think of Superfund, they think of contamination. They think of people dying from cancer,” Lentol said.

A report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests the impact of the designation on property values is mixed, and changes from site to site, with some sites’ property values rebounding after designation, before the cleanup is complete. The exact costs, extent and time frame for cleanup at both sites is speculative until more research is done, said EPA regional spokesperson John Senn.

Knowledge of the pollution and the Superfund label have not impacted average home prices in Greenpoint yet. Sales prices for two-family homes have risen over the past year from $771,449 to $799,386. The number of total home sales dropped off though, by about half, according to records from the city’s Department of Finance.

But the city is still concerned over the future of development near Newtown Creek, according to the mayor’s office. There are 184 blocks and two miles of waterfront still developable in Greenpoint, as well as the possibility for up to 7,000 additional units of housing and 7.9 acres of open space along less than a mile of waterfront, LaVorgna wrote in an e-mail. Those plans are contingent on private investment to reactivate the East River and Newtown Creek waterfront.

One part of the designation that has received little consideration is how it will affect the Queens side of the creek, specifically Hunter’s Point South, which was rezoned for development in 2008, LaVorgna wrote.

The area is cited for 5,000 housing units, a new public school, $175 million worth of utility and road infrastructure and 10 acres of waterfront park, he added.

Perhaps most crucial are $500 million in planned capital improvements for the area. Those projects could stall as the area comes under federal control, Lavorgna said.

The cleanup might not be controversy-free even if it began that way. In mid- October, Queens politicians, including Borough President Helen Marshall, Assembly Member Catherine Nolan, Assembly Member Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, issued a letter to the regional EPA coordinator taking the agency to task for what they perceived as a lack of attention to cleanup in the borough.

Few of those issues were raised by constituents when the EPA opened up the designation to public comment, Senn said.

“I will say that we got a lot more comments from the public about possibly putting the Gowanus Canal (more than 800) on the Superfund list than we did about possibly listing Newtown Creek (several dozen),” Senn wrote in an e-mail.

The reason for the limited feedback was not clear, he said.

But legislators say the designation in both areas cannot ultimately be held responsible for stagnation in development.

Lentol acknowledged that 45 planned building projects have stalled in Greenpoint since the recession began. Those developments were the byproducts of two rezonings—one in 2005 to open up the waterfront to high-rise condominiums and increased affordable housing, and another in 2008 to entrench the lowprofile post-war housing in the neighborhood’s center.

At Gowanus, Toll Brothers planned to stop building a $250 million development if the designation were approved, and when it was, they did.

The Bloomberg administration was not pleased.

Council Member Brad Lander, whose district encompasses parts of Gowanus, said he thought the developer might have had to pull out anyway, given the state of the economy. Other planned developments for the area, such as speculative plans for a Whole Foods, were never as concrete as the Toll Brothers housing development, he said.

Both Lander and Lentol suggested the designation would ultimately be good for their neighborhoods. Lander hoped the EPA could contract out cleanup work to local firms, stimulating the local economy. Lentol hoped the Newtown Creek designation would clear the way for eventual residential rezoning of the areas directly adjacent to the waterfront. Those sites are currently industrial, but the waterfront has been desolate for years, Lentol said.

“Everybody was waiting for industry to come back, and guess what?” Lander said. “It wasn’t ever coming back.”