The clean-up and development of the Gowanus Canal and the adjacent properties has been a dream of city planners and real estate investors for decades. While plans and studies and tests and reports have been conducted and issued for years, there is much visible activity taking place, and that has increased significantly this past fall.
Two important developments have recently taken place, one very visible and one less so but no less important. One, but not first, the last cement factory, Ferrara Bros, has finally moved out of their long-time space at Fifth and Hoyt Streets, to a new parcel in Sunset Park. This follows by several years the reclaiming of the lots used by Concrete Manufacturing Co. on Smith Street. The orange trucks of Ferrara Bros. will no longer be chugging up Smith Street toward the Manhattan Bridge. The Ferrara factory lots have been cleared to the dirt and a green plywood fence now surrounds it.
Next to that is a large brownfield that used to support a manufactured gas plant, now being cleaned up by National Grid and the EPA. You can recognize it by the mountain of rubble sitting in the middle of it, a mound almost as high as the nearby Culver viaduct of the F/G lines.
Further down the canal, the former Concrete Mfg. Co. lot is now occupied by contractors of the EPA involved in the second big development in the clean-up of the canal, that being the dredging of the canal’s Fourth Street turning basin. Completed in November, the Fourth Street basin has recently been touted as being cleaner than it’s been in 100 years, 150 years. This is after the removal of sludge, commonly referred to as black mayonnaise, to a depth of more than ten feet, which was moved to an “exclusion zone” on the EPA site and compressed and packed in heavy plastic to prep it for safe removal to a remote treatment plant. Once the muck was excavated, the workers covered the bed of the turning basin with two feet of layers of sand, which is supposed to stop new muck from forming.
We’re not sure about how clean the basin is now. We can agree that the bottom of the basin is cleaner than its been in a century, but then there’s that water, still fetid, still on many days slick with a rainbow of oil. There’s also the little problem of the CSO that was/is a major source of the canal’s pollution. CSO stands for combined sewer overflow, which happens when heavy rains fill the neighborhood’s waste lines (combined sewers) to the point that water flows into overflow pipes that empty into the canal. That system remains in operation, and until changes are made there (and hold your nose rather than your breath waiting for that to happen) the canal will continue to be a repository for human waste and other unappealing flotsam.
The long-term plan for the Ferrara lot is an eight-building residential complex of upwards of 750 apartments, of which 70 percent are to be affordable housing units, a vague term that often means still too expensive for most people to buy or rent. At this point, groundbreaking on that development is five years away at the most optimistic estimate.
Cleaning up other people’s old messes isn’t easy. Just ask the renters at the canal’s first completed project, 365 Bond Street, although actually, they may not know. The two acres on which that development sits have been certified as 100% clean by the State of New York, and yet…
Environmental laws prohibit using the ground water at 365 Bond for drinking and prohibit growing vegetables in the ground there. The mechanicals of the building include blowers that pull “contaminants” from the ground and…. Well, we’re not clear on exactly what those fans and vents do with those contaminants, but based on the description of the system, we’re not sure we want to know.
On a more positive note, tenants on the canal side get to look out onto the oily waterway and watch or join those brave coursers who use the canoe depot on the first floor of the building at the Second Street boat launch. Yes, intrepid canoers ply the length of the canal, from the head at DeGraw Street to the harbor (full disclosure: we’ve done it numerous times). But grow a few herbs? No way.
Welcome to the Gowanus Canal, going, not yet growing, greener every day.