You’d think that directly along the banks of one of the country’s most "extensively contaminated" waterways — a fetid, foul, and, the last time I traversed it, alarmingly frothy, 1.8-mile long trench in South Brooklyn where sickly dolphins go to die, hipsters go to houseboat, and where, once upon a time, dead bodies went to be (allegedly) dumped — would be the last place on earth a developer would plop down at 700-unit rental apartment complex. After all, an EPA Superfund project that, less than a year ago, breached its banks spilling pathogen-rich floodwaters into the surrounding streets (not to worry folks, no toxic waste here, just raw sewage) doesn't exactly scream please, move in right next to me! to potential tenants.

Yet because this is Brooklyn, the Gowanus Canal may be getting just that: A massive residential development erected by David Lichtenstein’s Lightstone Group on the exact same re-zoned parcel as a Toll Brothers luxury condo project that was scrapped more than two years ago.

And those who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the Gowanus, particularly Carroll Gardens, are none too pleased about it.

As reported by The Brooklyn Paper, opponents of Lightstone Group’s proposed 12-story development were out in full force last week at a rally staged on the Carroll Street Bridge, which will overlook the new yet-to-be-named twin buildings (Hepatitis Towers? Chateaux Overflow? Petri Place?). Even New York City mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson showed up to voice his concern: “This isn’t the type of development we need. To rush this [project] sitting, not near, on top of a Superfund site, doesn’t make that much sense.”

Opposition to plus-sized residential development on the Bond Street site between Carroll and Second streets has been fierce from the get-go, even before Lightstone entered the picture. It all started in 2009 when Toll Brothers convinced city planners to rezone the parcel, formerly a junkyard, to residential. A year later, when the EPA got involved and the "T" word (toxic) started to get thrown around, the homebuilding behemoth abandoned its controversial condo project on the banks of a freshly minted Superfund site and didn’t look back. Lightstone acquired the property shortly thereafter. 

Activists, including members of “responsible and sustainable development”-supporting Save Gowanus Association, believe that the Lightstone development will lead to overcrowded schools and subways, local traffic congestion, and additional strain on the antiquated sewers.

Design concept for Gowanus Canal project

The Lightstone development boasts significantly more units than the 477-unit Toll Brothers scheme including 140 under-market-rate apartments to lure in families and a younger crowd of more modest means. There is also a plan for a 580-foot landscaped esplanade that will be open to the public.

And then there’s also the issue of Sandy.

“It would be a serious mistake for you to proceed as though nothing had happened, without reconsidering or altering your plans, and putting over 1,000 new residents in harm’s way the next time an event of this magnitude occurs,” wrote one of the project’s most vocal opponents, New York City Councilman Brad Lander (D-Gowanus), in an open letter to Lichtenstein last November following the storm.

Lightstone Group spokesman Ethan Geto shot back, claiming that flooding will not be an issue as the buildings' mechanical and residential areas will be safe from flooding: "If we were going to build a project that would be vulnerable to flooding in a major storm like Hurricane Sandy we might as well not build the project — it wouldn’t be economically viable." He added: "We will refine the project if we need to. If our data suggests it needs to be further elevated … we will do it. We are going to build a project that won’t be flooded."

Given that the parcel in question did flood during last year’s catastrophic storm, the entire complex will be raised two feet to comply with post-Superstorm Sandy building regulations. However, activists believe this will make things worse if another sizable storm were to hit, the raised nature of the development will channel rainwater into the Gowanus that would, in effect, lead to more severe street flooding.

"We think this is going to have a catastrophic negative impact on the surrounding area if another Sandy occurs, which it will eventually. They're basically protecting their site while wreaking havoc on neighboring sites," Save Gowanus member Carl Teitelbaum explained to DNAinfo prior to the rally.

Geto denied this, explaining that recent environmental reviews have shown an increase to tidal elevation would not worsen flooding. He went on to add that protest organizers are spreading “not just misinformation, but disinformation” about the project, which I should mention, does have its fair share of boosters — folks who welcome any kind of development that might make the filthy waterway a little more user-friendly. As the New York Times wrote in a pre-Sandy article on the controversy surrounding the development, supporters believe "that the Lightstone development would create a constituency to lobby for continuing the cleanup of the sometimes inky, sometimes lizard-green waters of the 1.8-mile polluted and pathogenic canal."

Gowanus Canal development plans

The City Planning Commission officially gave Lightstone the green light back in March.

In June, Lightstone sponsored a canoe race on the canal, a PR stunt-y move that irked anti-development activists. “Lightstone is trying to send the message out that it's safe to be in the canal and it's not as bad as everyone says, but I think most likely it's worse than everyone says, Teitelbaum told DNAinfo. "The idea of putting people in there, of putting kids in there — it's completely crazy.”

With demolition already underway, the development is slated to break ground in early 2014 and be completed the following year. Dredging — the first step in the years-long cleanup of the Gowanus Canal — is expected to begin in 2016. Brooklyn’s very first Whole Foods Market is expected to open this fall just a few blocks away.

I'm all for cleaning up the Gowanus but I admit that, however malodorous, the canal is rather charming as is and the area surrounding it is sleepy, artsy, gritty, close-knit, lovely. I can see why Carroll Gardens residents are concerned that the Lightstone project is simply too much, particularly after Sandy. (Disclosure: I live one neighborhood over and used to work along the Gowanus)

Any thoughts from those who live and work near the Gowanus Canal about the Lightstone drama?

Via [Brooklyn Paper], [DNAinfo], [NYT]

Renderings: Lighthouse Group

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