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.
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.
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.