Gowanus Canal

Take Back Gowanus challenges Brad Lander’s “Shared Values,” by Harrison Neuhaus

On Wednesday evening, July 9, Gowanus business owners and local residents arrived mere steps from the pollution-ridden Canal to attend “Take Back Gowanus.” The meeting was called in reaction to City Council Member Brad Lander’s “Bridging Gowanus” series. Though he claimed that his goal was to find a “shared vision” for the future of the industrial neighborhood, Lander’s community meetings were met with frustration and skepticism from a number of locals.

Diane Buxbaum, Sierra Club member who is part of the Gowanus Canal Advisory Group, speaks at the meeting.
Diane Buxbaum, Sierra Club member who is part of the Gowanus Canal Advisory Group, speaks at the meeting.

Among these locals was Joseph Alexiou, who rented the 501 Union Street space to call a meeting of his own in response. Alexiou interrupted the June 25th Bridging Gowanus meeting, arguing that the process and the language used by the Pratt facilitators was biased and misleading. Lander’s sessions had split up attendees into groups that could not communicate with each other, and many people found that the conversations were steered towards a residential upzoning plan. Some attendees described the meetings as “rigged.”

Doors opened at 7pm, and the audience grew until the meeting was called to order at 7:30. With almost 100 people in the space normally used for weddings, Alexiou spoke first. He stated his appreciation for Lander’s efforts and made it clear that he agreed with the goal of identifying the neighborhood’s shared values. However, he spoke out against the process of Lander’s meetings, insisting that his own would follow “democratic and transparent” proceedings.

Gowanus currently faces a turning point as established entities fight to preserve their place in a neighborhood ripe for residential development. The Gowanus Canal is crucial to this defining moment. Declared a Superfund site in 2010, the Federal government has completed an action plan to finally clean the canal. With the EPA plan set, Gowanus is quickly becoming a battleground for competing interests between locals and developers.

Following a presentation on the history of the canal and the timeline of cleanup by EPA Superfund representative Natalie Loney, Sean Gannet took over. Gannet, who organized the TEDxGowanus talks about the Gowanus area, was the facilitator for the evening.

He explained that the night would consist of three parts: one in which people could come up and voice their ideas for the neighborhood’s future, a second in which these points would be discussed and debated, and a third in which these ideas could be distilled and summarized. With that, people began lining up to speak.

The proposals occupied the intersection of key points regarding the area’s future: zoning and rezoning, ecological cleanup, neighborhood infrastructure, and maintenance of the mixed-use commercial-residential environment.

Zoning and rezoning concerns were mostly inspired by residential development plans currently underway. Developers including Lightstone are seeking to tap into this prime real estate and gentrify it with luxury housing. Lightstone’s 700 unit project, already under construction, will tower above neighboring buildings and is designed to include a waterfront promenade on the promised clean waterway.

Ultimately in this new Gowanus, everything hinges on the Canal – both in its practical uses and desirability.

One proposal was made to require a community liaison that would force developers to comply with local rules, funded by the developers but occupying an independent position. Another sought to limit building heights, and others advocated for limits on new residential units in the neighborhood. One resident, going by the name “Reich,” sporting a red Mohawk and a spiked leather jacket proposed to leave the canal as it is and refocus attention on maintenance of the neighborhood.

Parallel and tangential proposals followed, including ensuring public access to the future waterfront, promoting small business manufacturing with the help of an viable waterway, requiring developer-paid infrastructure improvements to accommodate new residents. Proposals often conflicted, as some supported further restoration of wetlands around the canal while others advocated bringing in more local business wherever possible.

Gannet maintained order throughout this first portion of the night. He tried his best to curb ideas to single-sentence length so that Alexiou could write them down in real time on a projector screen behind the stage. Transitioning to the discussion and debate portion proved less organized.

Organized disorder
Gannet and Alexiou opened the floor to each proposal in order, aiming for a debate-style discourse of rebuttals and defenses. While there was such discourse, it rarely ever stayed fully on topic. The issues facing Gowanus are all interconnected, so audience members found it difficult to focus on each singular objective. Inevitably, discussions about one topic would slowly morph into a new issue, and the hosts did all they could to allow voices to be heard while also addressing ideas point by point.

The conversation, though lively, was filled with much debate about the details as proposals were more closely examined. Almost all could agree on improving infrastructure and promoting local manufacturing, but the practical specifics of such broad concepts proved contentious. Though the process was certainly democratic, it was far from ideal. The frustration of the hosts was palpable.

Tensions rose and tempers eventually flared between audience members and the hosts themselves. As Gannet and Alexiou struggled to keep on topic, attendees began to turn on them. One woman claimed that the two had been “bullying” and stifling a speaker who had gone on a tangent. Reich spoke up questioning Joseph’s own motives.

Anne Gaudet, another resident, went so far as to say that the meeting had not accomplished much more than “Bridging Gowanus,” and felt that the efforts of the evening were “redundant.” She objected that the best and most practical way to effect change is to go through the established routes, i.e. local representatives.

The meeting continued on, nonetheless, as audience members began filtering out. Although it was scheduled to end at 9pm, the most vocal attendees were all still present by 9:45, at which point the topic switched to whether or not the meeting should proceed.

It was ultimately decided to postpone further debate until the next meeting, between two and three weeks away, but Alexiou assured that he would be sending out all his notes to allow for online discussion.

By 10 pm “Take Back Gowanus” had ended on a bittersweet note. The first meeting had failed its goal of fully establishing the “shared values” that many had criticized “Bridging Gowanus” for fabricating. However, it had distinguished itself as a forum for a diverse array of voices. In the end, it could be said that a frustrating lesson was learned that night: consensus is hard to come by, and true democratic consensus is a long process even if it is worthwhile.

4 Comments

  1. Nice write up, however, I don’t feel it accurately represented what happened last night. In particular, the following statement: “Tensions rose and tempers eventually flared between audience members and the hosts themselves. As Gannet and Alexiou struggled to keep on topic, attendees began to turn on them.” It is true that three individuals did raise issues regarding the meeting, the meeting was set up to allow for that (unlike Bridging Gowanus). It was an expected part of the process, and for a room of over 100 stakeholders, the real takeaway was the amount of agreement in the room. I believe a lot more argument was expected around the proposals for Gowanus’ future. What happened was that almost all participants were in agreement on a few points: No re-zoning for high-rise luxury condo development along the Gowanus; more studies and investigations are needed before any rezoning should proceed; manufacturing and industrial uses should be preserved and encouraged to grow; and the community must continue having access to the canal.

    Other interesting ideas arose in discussions after the meeting broke up. None of the attendees, nor the organizers, expected a consensus to come out of last night’s meeting; a great start was made, and we all discovered that we had more in common in our vision than we may have thought.

    Most commendably, Joseph is committed to an open and transparent process, which he already knew could get a little messy. But it’s definitely preferable to the closed and opaque process of Bridging Gowanus, which seems to have attempted to neatly drive the community’s consensus to a pre-determined outcome. It was, unfortunately, a manipulative and downright insulting process.

  2. One/120 Meeting Attendee

    Common Ground can only be reached by first putting all the issues on the table; that in itself is an ambitious task for a 100+ people to do in one evening, and the meeting did accomplish that. Time did not permit discussion of all the issues collected under the first portion of the meeting, because there simply are a lot of issues. Time ran short before most of the enumerated issues could be discussed, and the meeting rapped up in how to proceed given that all topics were not covered and there was not time for the third part of the meeting.

    But one of the ideas you could hear from many speakers in the group was that dynamic manufacturing and commercial activities going on in the Gowanus presently is very good and should be allowed to continue to prosper, and that insufficient infrastructure is presently a problem which should not be made any worst with new zoning allowances.

    I understand that participants who left their contact information will be invited to partake in continued discussions in an online forum and a followup meeting for more face-to-face discussion will be scheduled later this month.

    It was interesting to see how non-planning people took up the task of community planning and this night did present an approach that was far more real than the typical schoolish-styled game-like tasks planning folks typically ask community participants to take part in.

    And given that we just celebrated the 4th, I imagine the first meeting of the Conventional Congress in Philadelphia probably went a lot tike this one.

  3. gbrook@pipeline.com

    As someone who attended and reported on the first public Bridging Gowanus meeting late last year, I appreciate and quite understand these two comments. As one of the publishers of the Star-Revue, I thank you for the comments. They but add to the depth of the reporting.

    I especially like the phrase ‘schoolish-styled.’ I have noticed this at so many of the community meetings held lately. It must be how they are training government and planning students these days. The point is that the outcome needs to come from the event, from the minds of the participants, not the event telling the participants what to think.

    George Fiala

  4. I have attended all Bridging Gowanus meetings including the more intimate group discussions centered around the “shared values”.

    While there was significant overlap in attendees of both Bridging Gowanus and Take Back Gowanus there were some new faces and new voices. Something that I hadn’t heard raised at the Bridging meetings (although it could have been as we were divided into small groups) was public safety. Although it was the 76th and how they would adapt to potential large scale residential development that was raised, this is a critical question given that not only out hospital but our firehouse have closed.

    I think being able to hear what everyone had to say was productive and worthwhile. I found it much better than being forced to sit at assigned tables in acoustically challenged rooms. It is disappointing that our council member is unwilling to engage in this type of open dialogue with his constituents. Had he done so it would have gone a long to fostering goodwill with the community.