Toll Bros: We can’t build if feds take over Gowanus Canal cleanup

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The fetid Gowanus Canal is on track for a federal clean-up — but it could also flush the canal zone’s first major residential complex.

David Von Spreckelsen, a vice president of Toll Brothers, said his company’s proposed 575-unit canal-side project “wouldn’t make sense” if the federal government embarks on what would be a multi-year cleaning of the famed “Lavender Lake.”

On Wednesday, federal officials revealed that South Brooklyn’s famed corpse of water is poised to be named a Superfund site — a classification that would allow the Obama administration to tap into a pool of federal money set aside for toxic clean-ups nationwide.

But such cleansing still leaves a dirty mark, said Von Spreckelsen.

“The adjacent properties will have this stigma of being located on a Superfund site, and I don’t think any rational businessperson would invest money in a property that has that kind of stigma attached to it,” he said.

The developer also said his company could not afford to wait for the clean-up to be finished. Toll Brothers received Council approval for its project last month and was expected to break ground this year.

“Typically [a] Superfund [clean-up takes] about 15 years,” he said. “We probably don’t have that type of time horizon.”

He said the company does acknowledge that the canal requires environmental remediation, but considers the proposed Superfund designation as “an extreme measure.”

There is wide support for some kind of clean-up of the 1.8-mile long waterway, which is tainted with pesticides, coal tar, metals, and gonorrhea, among other contaminants.

Some Gowanus activists cheered the Superfund designation and suggested that if the Toll Brothers project is canceled, the site alongside the squalid canal be turned into wetlands in an effort to remediate contamination.

But other canal advocates feared that being added to the Superfund list — which currently includes 1,331 sites around the country — could delay other promised canal clean-ups, like the imminent repair of the Gowanus flushing tunnel and pump station, and installation of new screens on underground pipes.

“If the canal gets put on the Superfund list, we have to insure that in no way, shape, or form, the [classification] delays any step of the clean-up that has been proposed over the past few years,” said Bob Zuckerman, a canal activist who is also a candidate to succeed Councilman Bill DeBlasio (D–Park Slope).

Neighborhood activist Buddy Scotto is also weary that the Superfund designation might sidetrack other clean-ups, and worse, hinder a proposed rezoning that would allow thousands of new residents to move into proposed developments alongside the canal.

“This is going to stand in the way of so many developmen­ts,” said Scotto. “The designation might scare off all of these private developers.”

Late on Thursday, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy issued a statement signed by Chairman Andy Simons, Vice Chairman John Muir and Acting Executive Director Lauren Collins that was vague about whether the Superfund designation would be a good thing or a bad thing for ongoing clean-up efforts.

There is no question that the Gowanus Canal is a historically polluted waterway,” the statement said. “Superfund status would imply that there is a desperate need to advance the clean-up. The question is whether placing it on the Superfund list is the best method for achieving the community’s hopes regarding improved environmental quality overall.”

But the statement warned that Superfund designation could “have a chilling effect on currently planned clean-up efforts from local and state environmental agencies.”

An informational meeting on the Superfund will be held on April 14 at PS 32 [Hoyt Street between Union and President streets in Boerum Hill), 7 pm. Call (718) 222-5819 for info.

Updated 5:12 pm, July 9, 2018: Updated to include a vaguely worded statement from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.
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Reasonable discourse

ncbd from Greenpoint says:
Being a Superfund site hasn't stopped any development near New Town Creek, why would Gowanus be any different?

If I were a developer, I would have done my research and maybe had thought that building and then selling a new development on a toxic waste dump might be problematic.

Why is building on toxic sites not illegal in the first place?
April 9, 2009, 2:36 pm
Troll Brother from Gowanus says:
Gee, if they clean up the canal, we won't be able to build our wonderful project, and people foolish enough to buy a home on our toxic site won't be able to have babies with two heads and six arms.

Why would they want to clean up the canal before we build housing there?
April 9, 2009, 4:23 pm
Eric McClure from Park Slope says:
The fact that the EPA would even consider designating the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site highlights the foolhardiness of pushing ahead with housing plans and residential rezoning along the Canal.

Mr. Von Spreckelsen is obviously prioritizing private profit over the long-term health of the neighborhood and its inhabitants, both current and future. And Mr. Scotto, who has spent decades advocating for the Gowanus, should be embracing the potential for a thorough clean-up rather than worrying that such a move would prevent people from moving into a potentially dangerous situation. Anyone who thinks a population influx should precede a comprehensive remediation effort should go rent "Erin Brockovich" or read up on Love Canal.

There's no reason that a Superfund designation should interfere with needed repairs to the flushing tunnel or the upgrading of pipes; the idea is to clean up the Canal, not make it worse.

Altruists will get behind the Superfund effort; those who get in its way will betray their ulterior motives.
April 9, 2009, 4:39 pm
judahspechal from Bed-Stuy says:
“The designation might scare off all of these private developers.”
I am tired of if they don't have this or that the developers will take their balls & go home. Leave already!

The area would be better & land more valuable, because of this fund.

Later for the developers! What the tax incentives not large enuff?
April 10, 2009, 1:46 pm
Therese Cunningham from Gowanus says:
Ooooh! Scaring off the private developers!!! And Von Spreckelsen would rather trick his condo buyers into living on toxic land than telling them the truth?

I am so happy that these guys true colors are finally coming out in print.
April 10, 2009, 5:54 pm
bill from boerum hil says:
Bring on the superfund! Rout those developers out! We are killing ourselves with condos in parks, condos on toxic waste sites, condos on land stolen from homeowners at Atlantic Yards, condos condos everywhere. Hasn't anyone read the news? Condos aren't selling. Let's kill them in our parks, kill them on toxic dump sites, kill them when they throw homeowners out of their homes. Let's build real parks, safe waterways, gentle and pleasing residences in established neighborhoods like Prospect Heights, and faggetabout the likes of Markowitz and fellow autocrats who would do our fair borough harm if it brought them one more dime for their re-election campaigns.
April 10, 2009, 7:53 pm
Charles from PS says:
Yes, Mr. David Von Spreckelsen. The Gowanus Canal is a disgusting cesspool unfit for human let alone animal habitation. That is why humans should not be living near it until it is cleaned up and deemed safe for at least women and children. It deserves super-fund designation, and any attempt to create another high end residential space under the guise of mixed use should be prohibited until the cleanup is finished.
April 11, 2009, 12:50 pm
wjcohen from Carroll Gardens says:
I think the reporter is in error - there is a planned 460 units, not 575...unless something has changed....
April 11, 2009, 9:51 pm

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