City may fund park as part of controversial Gowanus Green project

Public Place Gowanus
The Public Place site as seen from the Smith and Ninth streets subway station.
File photo by Amalia Arms

After first seeking developers to construct both housing and a new park on public land in Gowanus, officials now say the Parks Department may manage and fund construction of the proposed green space using taxpayer dollars as part of the controversial land deal on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. 

“The City is currently evaluating different models for construction. Once constructed, the open space will be transferred to NYC Parks,” said Department of City Planning spokesman Joe Marvilli in a statement. 

The developers selected to develop affordable housing and a retail strip at Smith and Fifth streets — Hudson Companies, the Bluestone Organization, Jonathan Rose Companies, and local nonprofit Fifth Avenue Committee — were also supposed to fund and maintain a 1.5 acre green space when the city first pushed for a rezoning of the six acre lot in 2008, the project’s Request for Proposal shows.

However, officials are now considering offloading those costs onto the city’s Parks Department, thereby allowing the developers to construct more below-market-rate housing on the public land, according to the local council member. 

“The park is going to have to come from public funds,” said Councilman Brad Lander (D–Gowanus). “In scenarios where the developers pay for parks … you generally don’t have mostly affordable housing.”

Indeed, officials revealed last December that the project had grown by nearly 200 units over what was originally proposed in 2008, ballooning from 774 units to 950. Along with that, the rate of affordable units went from roughly 70 percent of the development to 100 percent below-market-rate housing, and planners have added a five-story school to the project, according to Matt Creegan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Preservation — which is working with DCP on the scheme. 

The new plans would further allow for buildings varying in height between nine and 28 stories, a retail strip along Smith Street, an extension of Luquer Street, and could bring some 2,000 new residents to the area bordering Carroll Gardens, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. 

Locals have been critical of the plans from the get-go, saying the city shouldn’t encourage new residents to live and pupils to go to school on top of the heavily-polluted site. 

“You look at the contaminated items that were on this site — nobody should be living there,” said Linda Mariano of the environmentalist group Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus. 

The city shelved the old rezoning proposal when the Environmental Protection Agency designated the canal a Superfund Site in 2010, but relaunched it in 2018 and folded it into the neighborhood-wide Gowanus rezoning, because the site is still zoned for manufacturing.

Keeping the park portion in public hands will also make it easier for the feds during their impending cleanup, according to Lander, when they plan to use the site to transfer the viscous contaminated sediment nicknamed “black mayonnaise” between barges, beginning this September.

The site used to house a Citizen Gas Works plant which was decommissioned in the 1960s, before the city seized the site in 1975 via condemnation. 

The gas company later became part of what is now National Grid, which started a two-year cleanup of the site last July under the supervision of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. HPD and the developers would be responsible for any additional remediation, according to Marvilli.