One of the platitudes commonly offered regarding the Gowanus Canal is that manufacturing jobs have to be a part of whatever is planned for the canal’s future. Certainly there is a sensitivity to the canal’s industrial past and it’s history not only as a home for working class families but for industries that employed those families.
Due to this sensitivity the City has taken great pains to creatively rezone the Gowanus area in an effort to allow for residential development while maintaining M-1 zoning. Literally to the point of using what looks suspiciously like spot zoning (which is technically illegal), and placing manufacturing directly adjacent to new residential projects.
But is this such a wise strategy given the level of pollutants and toxins dumped into the canal as a result of industrial activity? The question has to be asked - are industrial uses compatible with the ongoing residential development of the canal area?
Typically residential conversion does not take place in an area until industry has all but abandoned it. The most famous example is probably the South of Houston Industrial District or SoHo in Manhattan. As industry left the area, artists moved into the empty warehouses using them first as studios and ultimately as live/ work spaces. Chester Rapkin wrote the 1961 report which creatively rezoned the area allowing the artists to stay. The rest as they say is history.
Recently the East River wanter front, from Williamsburg in Brooklyn north to Long Island City in Queens has seen heavy conversion from industrial to residential use. The City is planning more of these kind of industrial to residential conversions with the recently announced Hunts Point South rezoning project.
Unlike these other neighborhoods the Gowanus area has a substantial amount of active industry. It also has pollution caused by industry, which whether the City likes it or not is slowing down the pace of residential conversion. Hopefully we can all agree that pollution and residential development are not compatible.