The collapse of the clean water infrastructure serving the Gowanus Canal in 1968 and the slow but unrelenting decline of industrial employment in this area and throughout New York demanded the use of the zoning changes including special district options to trigger incentives. The Department of City Planning response to this interest outlined in the Gowanus Canal Development Study (1987) was direct – No and Not Now. A local vision called for a San Antonio Riverwalk solution - in effect a miracle. The gap was defined and the question has therefore remained for two decades. How and when new policies might arise to clean up this mess and right past environmental wrongs. Over a full century, the tonnage of stone and raw building material delivered through the canal built much of what we see today, but the true environmental cost of it all remains deferred to this day.
My late 90s work was a re-cap. The question was whether the newer forces shaping the future of the city’s waterfront as a new public realm might be beneficial to a man-made inland tributary. Still in post-industrial trauma, the Gowanus continues to offer an opportunity to demonstrate innovations in zoning and environmental performance regulation. These policies in place, economic revitalization through residential mixed-use development choices establish a new competitive position for land in this area.
The demand for housing coupled with city, state and federal capital for Brownfield remediation promised to transform 19th century industrial land uses into new 20th century economic “clusters”. This option illustrated the practicality of high-end residential districts that would be fully compatible and fully integrated on a few sites with high-performance manufacturing in close proximity.
The general approach outline several successful European examples that combined industrial design with flexible manufacturing resources capable of producing enough product for market testing throughtout the EU. This was recognized as an adaptable model to the industrial and communications design talent resident in the New York market. All that was needed was a combination of affordable shelter and workspace serving small businesses that liked making things. This model drew strength from the Greenpoint Design Center and similar efforts in Red Hook.
The post mortem on this analysis is that it anticipated a new set of rules for change. Land use research resources have monitored a modest flurry of comparatively small investments including the clever use of the Board of Standards and Appeals to produce an “ad hoc” land use change. These investors are the subject of Richard Florida's book "The Rise of the Creative Class".
In turn, they stimulate a set of incremental, but mutually supportive investments that are for the most poart risk oblivious. On these sholders others are more interested in producing, a large scale real estate miracle. In either case and in almost every respect just under 500 acres of urban land that has appeared to be economically dead by every comparative ratio known to investor remains functional if not reasonably viable.
Suddenly the Canal "edge" may be valuable once again, but not without a few remaining hurdles that confound city planners, environmentalists, engineers and architects. For the current picture see: New DCP Gowanus Zoning Plan