Posted by David Briggs

Gowanus by Design (GbD) was founded as a community-based design organization, to explore critical planning challenges for the Gowanus Canal and its adjacent neighborhoods. We established our reputation by sponsoring a series of design competitions, that proposed solutions for reclaiming the canal and strengthening the community: Gowanus Lowline: Connections, Water_Works, and, most recently, Axis Civitas. 

Connections, the first competition, in 2011, looked closely at street life, asking designers to speculate on the value of urban development of postindustrial lands and the possibility of dynamic, pedestrian-oriented architecture that either passively or actively engages with the canal and the surrounding watershed. The project understood the canal as a nexus of public connections rather than a geographic boundary or mute infrastructure element.

Water_Works, the following competition, from 2013, took water as a primary force, asking designers to create a retention tank facility and year-round Community Center. The tank would contain storm water until it could be released safely into city drainage systems, and the Community Center would provide sorely needed recreational facilities for a low-income community. The project positioned the life of the canal and our relationship with water as part of larger environmental forces.

Our third competition in 2015, Axis Civitas asked designers to create a Gowanus Atlas, to chart seen and unseen conditions in the watershed, and an Urban Field Station, a community-gathering place to house the Atlas. As the name of the competition suggests, it understood the canal as a civic center that orients surrounding neighborhoods geographically and culturally. Entries were displayed at the Site:Brooklyn gallery earlier this year. 

Each competition proposed infrastructure work hand-in-hand with community-building, searching for long-lasting, far-reaching solutions that addressed the life of the waterway and its neighborhoods rather than singular superstructures. Today, as plans to remediate the canal get underway, the ideas raised by the competitions are especially vital. GbD will publish a series of short essays and design proposals over the next year to present our views.

Though Gowanus was named a federal SuperFund site in 2010 it wasn't until this year that the direct impact of the remediation on the community became clear.

In April 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) agreed to locate an eight-million gallon retention tank on private property between the canal and the Thomas Greene Playground.  As currently planned, its construction could displace Eastern Effects, a private Level 2 film production studio at 270 Nevins Street. The studio's owner Scott Levy founded the business in 1999, developed it into a small campus of buildings, and reinvested after Hurricane Katrina to repair facilities from storm damage. He wants to stay in the neighborhood. If the property is seized through the process of eminent domain, Eastern Effects could be left without compensation for its investment.

The tank had previously been planned for the heavily contaminated area below the Thomas Greene Playground, one block east of the canal’s northern end. But some community members protested after learning that the park may be shut down for ten years during construction. Now, instead, the tank's construction threatens a major local business, the kind of home-grown enterprise essential to the community.

Recently, the mayor's office announced plans to rezone the Gowanus neighborhood.  While the spirit of the plan is welcome, its implementation will impact the character of the area's neighborhoods, some of which remain on the cusp of gentrification.

Fortunately, as a response to development pressures and the inevitable rezoning, Council Member Brad Lander founded Bridging Gowanus in 2013, an initiative that has worked to bridge the gap between government planning and community needs. It created a framework for implementing legislation to positively guide land use and infrastructure development, issuing a five-point plan in 2015 that includes proposals for Infrastructure, Manufacturing, Mixed-use, Affordable Housing, and Activating the Plan.

These guidelines were developed through a series of grassroots meetings with community members and leaders, and outline a vision for development that responds to real need.  If these recommendations are adopted by the city, they can prevent the kind of casually insensitive planning that threatens Easter Effects, and that might clot the area with overscaled housing complexes.

Rolled into the Bridging Gowanus platform are proposals for physical development, including mixed-use zoning to preserve small local businesses, fortified drainage systems to prevent storm flooding, and varied building heights to shape a pedestrian-friendly streetscape.

All this sets the stage for Gowanus by Design to take the learnings from our competitions and advocate for planning and architecture that best supports our community. The process of remediation and development will be lengthy, costly, complex, and not without controversy. GbD is prepared to shepherd those ideas that best support the community through planning and construction, and advocate for optimal design solutions.

As a first step, we've reached out to the EPA with strong positions on the remediation project. We're proposing that the retention tank be located, as originally planned, by Thomas Greene playground, with a temporary playground established during construction, and a permanent one reinstated afterwards. We're proposing that an Urban Field Station be included into the program, to act as a community center. And, in support of Eastern Solutions, we're demanding responsive planning so that no business owner needs to be involuntarily relocated.

There's an old saying that a camel is horse designed by committee. Giving over design for the Gowanus to a single government agency or a master designer might yield a unicorn, a gorgeous creature whose magnificent image eclipses its effects.  But what can happen if the design process is shared with the community? The multiple voices, carrying diverse points of view, promises to shape a creature that's complex, passionate, stubborn, resilient, and ideally responsive to its environment.  It's a thrilling possibility for the Gowanus, and, now, GbD is prepared to make it happen.
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Gowanus by Design
Bridging Gowanus
Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times: In Gowanus, a People’s Housing Plan to Challenge the Mayor’s
Eli Rosenberg in the New York Times: Gowanus Canal Cleanup Could Evict Brooklyn Film Studio