The Gowanus has been called the “shortest”, “most important”, and “busiest”, but was perhaps best known as the “most polluted” canal in the country. For nearly 150 years the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY was the repository of toxic sludge, raw sewage, and commercial garbage. It earned the title Lavender Lake in honor of its constant oily sheen and for decades offended nearby residents with its foul odors. But now, against all odds it is making a comeback.
Although the Gowanus may never evolve into the Venice of Brooklyn that some Gowanus activists envision, this neighborhood is showing signs of life, and has already experienced development pressures, increases in property values and renovation of formerly negelected properties.
The neighborhood includes three different New York City Council districts with district 33 in the north, district 39 in the center and district 38 in the south. While the Canal is is a connecting artery for each of these communties, each section of the neighborhood has a different character.
The shorelines of this area contain sanitation garages, a fuel oil distributor, warehouses and the Department of Environmental Protection Pumping Station, which is situated on Butler Street at the head of the canal. To the immediate North are two large public housing complexes: The Gowanus Houses (1,200 apartments) and Wyckoff Gardens (700 apartments). On the East shore of the Gowanus Canal, there are a number of former factory buildings that are now home to artists who run an annual art studio tour which features work of established and upcomming artists on display in the space where the work was created.
The popularity of the Carroll Gardens neighborhood to the west and Boerum Hill to the north has motivated property owners to invest in their properties and devote time to maintaining gardens at the dead end streets. Many owners would like to see a dog run constructed and the renovation of the Thomas Green Playground that has a swimming pool just one block from the canal. While prostitution and crime is on the decline, the uplands on the west shore continues to receive a significant amount of illegal activity and late night dumping is common.
Central Gowanus (North of Hamilton Ave. West Shore, North of 3rd St. East Shore)
Property owners in this area have been developing a marina of sorts between the bridges and each year, the number of fishing vessels, motorboats and jetskis continue to grow. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club runs all of their programs from this part of the Canal which is calm, flat water protected from harbor winds and wakes. Lenny "The Chicken Man" Thomas, a DOT engineer who operated the bridges from a controll tower at Union Street where he was constantly dreaming of new chicken recipes. The Carroll Street Bridge constructed in 1888-89, rebuilt and landmarked 100 years later, is the oldest of three remaining retractile bridges in the country.
Brownfields and contaminated properties are abundant in the area and a large, 4.5-acre site that is a designated "Public Place" has been the focus of many canal cleanup discussions. The property, located at 5th and Smith Streets, is under city ownership and has a history of pollution from former users. Many advocates dream of new housing or a large open recreational space on the shoreline but first, the site's history of pollution must be addressed. At the time, City Councilman Bill DiBlasio allocated $180,000 in 2002 to determine the extent of the site's contamination.
In addition to the renovation and reuse of many properties near the shoreline, two applications were denied by the Board of Standards and Appeals that would have granted zoning variances to allow private developers to create market-rate luxury housing buildings in the neighborhood. The first application was for a multi-story manufacturing property on Third Street that was used as a storage facility up until it caught on fire in 1999 and has not been successfully rented since. The second, on Union Street at the canal would have demolished a single-story building that has sat vacant for over ten years to be replaced with a six-story residential building. A former coal gasification plant and printing press on the East shoreline, between the Third and Carroll Street bridges, is also vacant and is within the Southwest Brooklyn Empire Zone so it could utilize a number of incentives for new business development.
The Gowanus Canal makes a turn to the West through this portion of the neighborhood. When the canal was constructed, the engineers followed the natural contour of the land and constructed basins to the East that served to drain the uplands and as turning areas for barges filled with grain. Many of these basins have silted in over the years and the shallow water is only accessible by canoe or kayak and much of the bottom sediment is exposed at low tide.
Most of the manufacturing uses are concentrated in this area with a number of concrete and stone related businesses and van rental businesses located on the west shore. The eastern shore is in the Southwest Brooklyn Empire Zone and is home to a variety of manufacturers including printing facilities, candle-makers, auto repair facilities and parking lots.
Economic and community factors are encouraging alternative uses of this portion of the canal waterfront as a potential location for retail business. A Home Depot and Pathmark opened on the canal a few years ago, a Lowe’s is scheduled to open this year and a Whole Foods is scheduled to open in 2006. Lowe's is constructing a concrete paved waterfront walkway but will have limited green space and no waterfront access. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club hopes to entice future property owners to provide handboat access so we may land and patronize their business. Home Depot is not accessible from the water and has blank walls facing stunning harbor views.
Portions of the above text have been shared by The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.