The Gowanus plan relies on more favorable ratios. Of the 8,000 units to be built over the next decade, more than a third will be reserved for lower-income individuals and families. Some two-bedroom apartments would cost as little as $850 a month. There will be apartments designated for those currently living in shelters or on the street or those who require supportive housing. According to Brad Lander, the city councilman for Gowanus and a chief proponent of the plan, more will be required of developers in exchange for the tax breaks that come to them.
Mr. Lander has also insisted that the city contribute tens of millions of dollars toward repairs necessary in the projects belonging to the New York City Housing Authority situated in and around Gowanus. This is something the community has asked for all along during the many years that rezoning has been discussed.
The real issue here is that 950 units of low-income housing would be built on an enormous city-owned lot — known alternately as Public Place or Gowanus Green — where coal-gas had been manufactured from the mid-19th century through the middle of the 20th. Of the three coal-gas plants that were in Gowanus, two of them, according to Maureen Koetz, a longtime environmental lawyer who has been consulting for those opposing development, were categorized as “Class 2’’ in the early 2000s, meaning that they had been deemed to present a significant threat to public and environmental health. (Class 1 is the most dangerous.)
Currently, the proposed housing site is undergoing cleanup of various hazardous byproducts of manufactured gas, paid for by the public utility company that inherited the problem long ago. “The general practice is not to put housing, or schools for that matter, on these remediated sites,’’ Ms. Koetz told me. “If you are in a warehouse or shopping or in a park, you are there for a limited amount of time so you’re not getting that much exposure.”
In the mid-1940s, when we knew less about environmental toxins, Stuyvesant Town, the sprawling middle-class housing complex on the East River, was built on a defunct coal-gas site. If anyone has ever studied cancer rates over the long term there, this would be the time for the city reflect on the data and make it known.
At a neighborhood meeting in December, Christos Tsiamis, a chemical engineer managing the cleanup of the canal for the Environmental Protection Agency, warned that compounds even 15 feet below the surface of the gas site will volatilize as a result of construction and could, within a decade, find a pathway into buildings and accumulate, potentially endangering the people who will live in them.
“Nobody who had the resources to live somewhere else would choose to be there,’’ said Penn Rhodeen, a former children’s aid lawyer involved with the activist group Voice of Gowanus. “So it becomes an issue of environmental morality.”