Gowanus: Cleaning up and looking forward

Gowanus: Cleaning up and looking forward

When I visited Gowanus as Hurricane Sandy first made landfall, I saw the canal rising over its banks, flooding neighboring streets, and approaching businesses and homes.

Like many of you, I was very concerned. The cleanup of the Gowanus Canal has long been a priority of this community and thanks to the efforts of local advocates, the canal is now an EPA Superfund Site. The flooding we saw during Hurricane Sandy made it clear why it is so important for us to continue to push for a comprehensive, forward-looking cleanup plan.

As Hurricane Sandy approached our community, I reached out to US EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck and NYC Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Carter Strickland. The two agencies commited to do testing in Gowanus following the storm and to work together to address the impacts. My office connected the EPA to some of the affected businesses and residents and, on October 31st, the EPA took water samples from the ground floor of two buildings that were flooded directly from the canal.

We now have the EPA test results. There were high levels of bacteria in the flood water, which means anyone doing cleanup should take precautions recommended by the EPA (if you have specific questions, please contact my office). Thankfully, the toxic chemicals in the Gowanus Canal were not found at dangerous levels in flooded businesses near the canal.

But there is more to be done. We need more and better communication from the environmental agencies at every level of government as small businesses and residents address flooding in this sensitive area. To start, I am working with my colleagues, including Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and State Senator Daniel Squadron, who have both been active in post-Sandy recovery, to urge the EPA to provide opportunities for you to talk with their representatives directly and get your questions answered.

And as we complete the cleanup and look toward the future, I hope Hurricane Sandy becomes a turning point for planning and development in Gowanus. Let's turn this moment of disaster into an opportunity. We can create the model for planning in low-lying areas on a warming planet, while reclaiming this toxic corner of our neighborhood for shared community spaces and mixed-use development.

That is why I called on the Lightstone Group, a developer who has proposed building a 700 unit residential building on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, to withdraw the proposal until a forward-looking planning process can take place. We must figure out what infrastructure improvements are needed all along the canal to contain flood waters. We need to think about how many new residents the neighborhood can handle and what additional services they will need. And we need to decide which areas make sense for private uses and which should be reserved for everyone. That can’t happen on a piecemeal, building-by-building basis.

This conversation must be closely coordinated across federal, state, and city agencies (last April, I urged the environmental agencies to better coordinate, and post-Sandy this is even more important). This conversation should also be participatory. We are not all going to agree, but, as we’ve seen in Participatory Budgeting, when you empower the community in decision-making processes, we end up with better decisions that neighborhoods are invested in carrying forward.

This is an important moment for the Gowanus. Let’s not let it pass us by.