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Bell tolls for the Gowanus

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The dream of a Gowanus Canal lined with homes and esplanades instead of oil companies and junkyards took a step forward as a developer of suburban McMansions unveiled its vision for a 447-unit development that actually uses the fetid canal as a selling point.

Toll Brothers, the famed builder of suburban, cookie-cutter–style mansions, filed plans with the city on Feb. 7 to lend its luxury brand name to a project that mixes in 130 below-market-rate apartments, retail space and a public esplanade along the famously filthy “waterway” between Carroll and Second streets.

The developer says its proximity to the Gowanus is the signature element of the project, despite the fact that this corpse of water is synonymous with heinous smells and floating garbage.

“The location is the key to its success, really,” said David Von Spreckelsen, a Toll Brothers vice president. “Being within Carroll Gardens, two blocks from Smith Street and two blocks from the subway is great.”

Before the Toll Brothers can build any residential buildings, however, the company needs a zoning change. And to get that, the company will need to undertake an environmental impact review that not only looks at the project’s effect on land, water and air quality, but also on traffic, local schools and nearby landmarks, such as the historic Carroll Street bridge.

But that environmental review and rezoning process, which take more than a year to complete, won’t start ticking until the Department of City Planning says all the details of the Toll Brothers proposal is in order, a ruling that is expected to come in the next few weeks.

After that, everyone from the Community Board to the borough president to the City Council gets to weigh in and, possibly, force Toll Brothers to alter its plan or make concessions.

One source of some immediate concern was the size of the project, which calls for two, 12-story buildings along the canal. On Bond Street, the western boundary of the site, the building height drops to six stories.

Others, however, pointed out that such density creates advantages.

“One hundred thirty units of affordable housing is very positive for the community,” said Bob Zuckerman, director of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, which has long called for residential construction in the area. “It’s not as high as we would like, but it’s significantly higher than it could have been.

“Plus, the open space is great,” Zuckerman added.

Opponents don’t want developers to set a precedent for big buildings that drive out local businesses or destroy the architectural history. (See side story about historic status.)

“As a borough, we probably need to take a step back and figure out what we want to do with the canal,” said Eric McClure, a member of Park Slope Neighbors. “There’s some great industrial architecture. I’d hate to see it turned into a cookie-cutter, mixed-use village.”

Those are harrowing words for Toll Brothers, a company known for building “McMansions.”

Besides criticizing what happens above ground, McClure and others want to know the extent of pollution in it, before development moves ahead.

The Toll Brothers say they’ve tested their property and found petroleum in the soil — one of the two blocks meets the state classification of a brownfield — which they claim is easy to remove.

Von Spreckelsen says that opponents are merely raising the specter of an environmental problem to arouse fear about living in what Toll Brothers — and many other developers — hope to develop into an entirely new residential neighborhood with the Gowanus Canal at its center.

“There are certain people who would rather not see a change there, and they magnify the viewpoint that some people might not want to live here because of the environment,” he said.

Nonetheless, the city is also moving ahead with its own Canal-zone plan. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is expected to choose a developer later this month for the so-called “Public Place” site, which is along the canal at Fifth Street.

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Reader Feedback

PJ JImenez from Williamsburg says:
It is time to clean up the canal. Thank you Toll Brothers ! Don't forget affordable housing.
Feb. 22, 2008, 2:17 pm
Ralph from CG says:
The City's rezoning plan and the Toll rezoning plan are one-and-the-same. There is no community planning element anywhere here.
Feb. 22, 2008, 7:54 pm
Dave from Downtown says:
There already is too much destruction of old houseing. There seems to be overbuilding all around this part of Brooklyn. The reason everyone wanted to move here was the old stock housing. Now because of gread everything is being torn down. Enough is enough.
Feb. 23, 2008, 12:17 am
City Council Who from navy yard says:
Does Bob Z have a real job, or does he spen all his time dreaming of high-rise residences on the open sewer?
Feb. 23, 2008, 6:32 pm

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