Gowanus in Flux: Planning for Neighborhood Resiliency

           On Friday, November 16th, BWRC hosted a lively discussion on the the future of the Gowanus waterfront. Michelle de la Uz, Fifth Avenue Committee Executive Director, was the first speaker and she outlined the major demographic shifts underway in Gowanus. Most importantly she noted, between 2000 and 2015 much of the neighborhood underwent a major exodus of Latino/a residents in certain Gowanus census tracts; certain census tracts saw a flip from a Latino/a supermajority in 2000 to a majority white tract by 2015. As economic pressures have led to this decrease in the  Latino/a population, de la Uz said, the median household income in Gowanus has spiked nearly 300 percent, rising from around $35,000 per year in 2000 and landing near $90,000 a year in 2015. These massive transformations have ushered in a new set of challenges throughout a neighborhood that is is already home to immense environmental contamination; currently, the highly contaminated Gowanus Canal is also home to the EPA’s federally-mandated Superfund remediation project that seeks to reduce heavy contamination throughout the Gowanus watershed.

              In 2016, after Mayor de Blasio announced plans to rezone Gowanus, land values began to increase, years before the actual rezoning has been unveiled. De la Uz walked audience through one of FAC’s key proposals for the upcoming rezoning — the creation of the city’s first EcoDistrict. The FAC’s proposed EcoDistrict would prioritize equity, resilience, and climate readiness throughout the entire Gowanus community. While the city has never implemented an Eco District, there are strong and successful examples from other cities across the country that New York City could use as a blueprint.

              De la Uz was followed by Andrea Parker, Executive Director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC), who walked us through her non-profit’s vision for increasing open space and green infrastructure throughout the Gowanus canal watershed. Critically, Parker outlined the current issues with Combined Sewage Overflow throughout the Gowanus watershed, which leads to repeated canal contamination. While the city’s re-zoning moves forward alongside the Superfund remediation project, Parker reminded the audience that setting mandatory standards for green and blue infrastructure remain critical to any efforts which seek to build a climate-resilient, ecologically sound neighborhood. Parker suggested that the city’s rezoning could mandate a comprehensive set of standards for green infrastructure, alongside resilient design for newly created open space. Altogether, these opportunities for ecologically sound design could help Gowanus’ long-term residential communities thrive — and remain — in their neighborhood.

                Both FAC and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy play a critical role in the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ), which is a grassroots coalition of stakeholders that are leading the rezoning process and outcomes. Key to their framework is the advancement of racial and economic justice, the preservation and expansion of affordable housing, and the promotion of environmental justice. In the coming months, both organizations will help steer the community’s response to de Blasio’s rezoning proposal and aim to secure equitable outcomes, green design standards, and more for Gowanus’ long-term residents.

Visions for Newtown Creek

BWRC hosted its first Breakfast Talk of the semester, “Visions for Newtown Creek,” on October 12th, 2018. Speakers representing the Newtown Creek Alliance and Riverkeeper outlined their comprehensive, community-driven Vision Plan for the remediation of Newtown Creek.

Lisa Bloodgood, Director of Advocacy and Education at the Newtown Creek Alliance and Chrissy Remein, the Community Project manager at Riverkeeper, presented this ambitious plan starting with a brief history of the challenges inherent to environmental restoration in a densely-populated urban industrial environment. Among the most pressing concerns for residents in the area is the chronic issue of combined sewage overflow (CSO), which occurs when sewer systems are overloaded with rainwater run-off, diverting a mixture of sewage and stormwater to the nearest water body–in this case, the Newtown Creek. Watch this video by the Center for Urban Pedagogy to learn more about CSO.

Although it was designated as a Superfund site by the EPA in 2010, the formal environmental remediation process in Newtown Creek has yet to begin. While the EPA continued its research and feasibility studies, community and environmental advocacy organizations formed the Superfund Community Advisory Group (CAG) with local residents, businesses, and environmental advocacy groups to develop a long-term planning strategy, culminating in the 85-part Vision Plan.

At the heart of the Vision Plan is a commitment to protect and support Newtown Creek as a site of industry and employment in the community. The various strategies outlined by the report intend to strike an appropriate balance of uses between recreation and industry by reimagining what these public spaces can achieve for future generations.

Controversial BQX was the topic of our final Breakfast Talk of the semester

Schechtman talk 1

Harris Schechtman, National Director of Transit for Sam Schwartz Engineering, was our guest for the final BWRC Breakfast Talk of the semester (Mr. Schechtman replaced Mr. Schwartz, the originally scheduled speaker). Mr. Schechtman, who has over 40 years of experience in the field of transportation design and operation, spoke about the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), a proposed streetcar line that would link Astoria, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Mr. Schechtman, whose company has been conducting a study of the proposed line, presented a number of findings in favor of the BQX, arguing that it would ease congestion on crowded or near-capacity bus and subway lines; provide equitable access for Brooklyn and Queens residents to jobs along the waterfront corridor; enhance connectivity to already-existing transportation and infrastructure; and promote economic development overall. Despite the strong interest evinced by audience members, the proposal met with some skepticism from community members who are wary about its impact on Brooklyn Heights, Sunset Park, and other waterfront neighborhoods.

Regardless, the event was successful in bringing together transportation advocates, urban planners, and community members, who turned out in large numbers despite the driving rain. We at BWRC look forward to planning events on transportation and other pertinent waterfront issues for the coming academic year.