Friday, July 21, 2006

Gowanus Canal Redevelopment Plan Released

Urban planning graduate students at NYU’s Wagner School have just released a study proposing a redevelopment plan for a contaminated 6.5 acre site on the Gowanus Canal, bounded by Smith, Hoyt, and 5th Streets. The students spent the last year interviewing stakeholders in the community, conducting a survey of residents and workers in the area, and understanding the history of the site to identify issues and develop a plan for the site.

The site, known as Public Place, was the site of a manufactured gas plant operated by Brooklyn Union Gas, the predecessor to KeySpan. Today, the site is highly contaminated, mostly vacant and underutilized. It is, however, in a central location between residential uses to the north and west, and industrial uses to the south and east, and is close to mass transit. It is one of the larger, mostly vacant, city-owned sites remaining in New York City.

The group solicited survey responses from anyone living or working within ½ mile of the canal. In addition, they interviewed representatives of city and state agencies, elected officials, community advocates, local artists, and advocates for issues such as the environment, industrial retention, affordable housing, and open space.

Not surprisingly, there were many competing interests among the stakeholders. As a local politician stated: “Gowanus is like the Balkans.” However, the study was able to identify some broad areas of agreement. The major themes identified by the survey are:
  1. Open space and outdoor recreation/park are strongly preferred.
  2. Community facilities and work space for artists are preferred.
  3. Support for residential and retail uses exists.
  4. If the site includes retail, community support for a grocery store is strong.
  5. Mixed-use redevelopment is preferred.
  6. Support for affordable housing is strong.
  7. Industrial and manufacturing facilities and commercial offices are not preferred.
  8. The community seeks a range of waterfront and public park amenities.
  9. Buildings on the site should be 3–5 stories tall.
Most respondents agreed that Public Place should include some waterfront access and open space. There was general agreement that the ground floor of any development should be open to the public. Stakeholders for the most part supported the inclusion of affordable space for artists, seniors, or low- to middle-income residents. Finally, there was wide recognition of the canal as a community asset and a desire to leverage the waterway as a community amenity.

The group created four scenarios in order to identify the optimal combination of height, residential units, and affordable housing units. The four scenarios all have the same building footprint of 128,100 square feet, a 3-acre park with a waterfront esplanade, and a 23,100-square-foot community facility.

The scenario that the research group believes strikes the best balance between providing affordable housing, adhering to neighborhood context and architectural character, and generating the maximum economic impact to the city is the one shown above. It envisions a three-acre park, a 35-foot waterfront esplanade and a boat launch, a 23,100-square-foot community and cultural facility, and a mixed-use development incorporating a combination of retail and artisan work spaces on the ground floor and three to five stories of residential units above.

The research group also made recommendations as to the short-, medium-, and long-term steps that will need to be accomplished in order to make the most of the Gowanus site. The crucial short-term goal is to develop a remediation plan in collaboration with KeySpan, and clean up the environmental problems both on the site and in the canal. Next, they suggest that the city work with the community to develop a Request for Proposals that it can issue to the development community. The city should then choose a developer and have the site rezoned. An environmental review culminating in an Environmental Impact Statement will be necessary.

Congratulations are in order to Wagner for this extremely thorough study. They’ve done an excellent job of reaching out to community members and incorporating their recommendations. The Public Place site has been an unutilized blight for a number of years, and it has the potential to become a significant boon to the neighborhood.

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