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The Department of City Planning recently released their draft rezoning for the Gowanus Canal area in Brooklyn: www.nyc.gov/gowanus. In a nutshell, the 2-story neighborhood will become 20-stories. Not wall-to-wall 20-stories, but you can say goodbye to open sky.

I am of two minds about the Gowanus area. First, it is and will always be a wetland. The area floods routinely and will flood more routinely with sea level rise (click on image).  As the sea rises – and it soon will – more and more of the area will be waterlogged.  So, the truly resilient thing to do would be to let it be a wetland which soak up the floods. It could even be a lake – with amazing lake front properties! Think Lake Placid in the Adirondacks (click on image), Lake Merritt in Oakland (click on image) or Geneva, Switzerland (click on image).   

But that’s not going to happen.  It would take an effort the size of creating Central Park, and our politics today are nowhere near as ambitious.

Second, if Gowanus Lake is not happening, then we need to elevate. Everything, from streets to gardens to buildings need to be about 10 feet higher. We essentially need a new ground plane. Chicago did this with about 15 streets near the Chicago River between 1855 and 1926 (click on image). Remember the car chase in the Blues Brothers movie? That took place on the lower level. Canary Wharf in London was built above the flood plain. Elevating Gowanus will require a massive infrastructure project, and the way we pay for infrastructure these days is through development.

Other than the wetland aspect, the Gowanus area is an ideal place to grow. It is a stone’s throw to the Barclays Arena and all the subways in downtown Brooklyn. It sits snugly between two prosperous neighborhoods (Park Slope and Carroll Gardens). The adjacent industrial area provides jobs. There could be high speed ferry service to Lower Manhattan (for work) and the Rockaways (for play). We will, however, need more schools and subway service.

Could the development happen without developers? Not really. Homeowners generally cannot afford to move their boiler, water heater and electricity out of the basement. 140 year-old row houses cannot be lifted en masse. Raising the level of a street is extremely disruptive, and most families will not want to endure that type of aggravation. Most lots are brownfields, and all the dirt needs to be replaced or capped – unless you are a fan of lead poisoning.

Will the rezoning force people to rethink their relationship to Gowanus? Yes. But so will the next storm surge.