The driving force in the history of the Gowanus has been, and will be, water: the native ponds that lured settlers, the manmade waterway that supported manufacturing and shipping, the damaging storm sewer overflows, and the distressed quality of the current environment.
Gowanus by Design took this key relationship as the subject of our 2012 competition Water_Works. The project program was a community center and water retention facility, a multipurpose structure that could serve both the canal and the community.
The project site was a block at the northern tip of the Canal, where the Douglass and Degraw Pool is located, within Thomas Greene Playground. It's a site with its own pointed industrial history, the former grounds of the Fulton Manufactured Gas Plant [MGP]. At one time in the nineteenth century there were three MGP's in Gowanus, facilities that burned coal to produce gas for homes and businesses, and also to power the trolleys that ran up and down 4th Avenue. Their heavy coal use contaminated local water and air. The current pool site is a brownfield location that requires remediation before it can be redeveloped. Soil beneath the pool will need to be processed to eliminate coal tar and steel and wood scraps that were byproducts of the gas purification process.
The competition's concerns now seem especially prescient, as the site will be remediated as part of the federal Superfund cleanup. But before work can begin, a temporary park and playground will be located and designed within the neighborhood. And plans for a permanent park and playground – at this original site or a new, adjacent, one – will be considered.
PLAYGROUND, PARK, POOL
Of the three winning Water-Works entries, one conceals retention tanks below ground, and builds a raised ground plane above street level to accommodate the community center and playground. The two others winning entries, along with many others, fashion a new groundscape for the block that integrates exposed water elements (streams, ponds, pools) with green spaces, sports fields, swimming pools, and playground equipment. This idea, to combine land and water forms, mix recreational and infrastructure uses, remains especially alluring, as it highlights the water systems at the heart of the neighborhood.
As the new temporary and permanent pools are planned, one hopes that its linkages with larger water systems will be highlighted. The water that fills the pool might be supplied from upstate streams and lakes, or with treated rainwater and runoff. The pool basin might double as an emergency retention tank. The pool and park might be maintained by local students or community members, who test the water chemically for safety, and tend to a landscape of native plants. The pool has the potential to be a substantial local monument, that adds to the complex character of the neighborhood.
AN INTERIM SOLUTION
The first step is relocate the pool to a place that serves all users. It could be placed on a city property. This would simplify acquisition and development, and give the city increased flexibility to plan and develop the facility. It could be placed within one of the nearby New York City Housing Authority [NYCHA] projects, the Wyckoff Gardens or the Gowanus Houses. This might isolate the facility, which is now bounded by sidewalks on three sides, geographically. And it could be placed within the large block of the Con Ed plant on Nevins Street, near the north end of the canal, between Baltic and Butler Streets. This would link the facility very literally to existing infrastructure facilities.
Another, innovative, solution is to break the park and pool into a number of smaller facilities, and locate them in different street ends along the canal. These microparks could weave together blocks within this diverse neighborhood, enhance canal frontages, promote pedestrian traffic, and offer, in addition to sports and recreation facilities, more intimate outdoor social spaces.
A PERMANENT HOME
The temporary playground and park are understood as an interim solution. But they might remain in use longer than intended, or be preserved as a satellite facility for a permanent park and pool. Gowanus by Design suggests that the temporary pool and playground be located at the north end of the canal, near the site of the existing park and pool, close to the the Wyckoff Gardens and Gowanus Houses, on an open block with direct sidewalk access. The empty Con Ed site is a perfect location. This enables current park users to keep using it, confirms that the park is a public resource, and ensures access for those living in public developments.
Gowanus by Design will participate in all discussions to promote our ideas for the temporary and permanent park and playground. It's vital that others in the community participate too, so that these facilities are designed and developed in a way that best serves our vibrant, dynamic landscape.
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