19 June 2009

Gowanus, the Superfund and the Evil of Today's New York

There is perhaps no better way of illustrating the utter wrongness of the way development issues are handled in today's New York than an examination of the Gowanus Superfund scandal that has been unfolding over the past two months. (Yes, it is a scandal.) It has been a pageant of mendacity, chicanery, greed and utter disregard for public welfare from the get-go, from the tactics of the developers The Toll Brothers to the behavior of politicians at nearly every level of City government, from Bloomberg on down.

To fill in those who are not aware (they can't be many, the issue has been given such press coverage), in April 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to list the long fetid and neglected Gowanus Canal on the Superfund National Priorities List. This might have been good news at another time, under another Mayor. But during the boom-boom development decade that has just recently died, the Toll Brothers decided the Gowanus Canal was like Venice or something, and whipped up a bizarre plan to erect a bunch of tall, luxury housing towers along the waterway.

Let it never be said the any New York developer ever came out on the side of the community. And, sure enough, the blindsided Tolls hated this idea. It would slow down (money) development! It would hinder (money) the rebirth of the area. And, you know, they said, the canal isn't really that dirty, when you think of it. (They actually went on the record with this position!) Plus, plus, plus, plus....we've got our own plan to clean up the canal! No, really we do. It's around here somewhere, just give us a minute. And it's so much better than the EPA's!

Bloomberg, suddenly hearing that one of his peeps (i.e., wealthy developers) was in peril, immediately came out against the clean-up. Again, the main concern was that the Toll Brothers would be negatively impacted. Lots of other pols came out against it, too, including the super-slimy Bill DeBlasio, who takes a bath in extra virgin olive oil every morning so as to render himself as slippery as possible. No surprise there, after the Tolls spent near half a mil on lobbying City Hall for the zoning change that gave them the ability to build on the canal. Nobody, meanwhile, seemed to be thinking about the communities of Gowanus, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens, and how the rejection of a free clean-up of a poisoned canal might effect them.

One of the first folks to come out in favor of the Superfund was Josh Skaller, one of the five candidates for the City Council seat that DeBlasio vacated. Skaller—who refuses to take money from developers, and is supported by The Carroll Gardens Coalition for Respectful Development (C.G. CORD) and the Friends and Residents of the Gowanus Canal (FROGG)—held a press conference at the Canal today to elucidate his position, and counter the campaign of misinformation that has clouded the issue.

And what misinformation! As Skaller pointed out, the Toll Brothers have hired the same environmental "expert" and the same high-priced public relations firm that Bruce Ratner employed when he was busy raping downtown Brooklyn for Atlantic Yards. They've been challenging the EPA's Superfund track record—while playing down the fact that the City has absolutely NO track record in large clean-ups. They promote the idea that the Toll Brothers are fully intent on cleaning the canal—while making no mention that the Tolls might not like the Superfund because its rules would require them, as one of the responsible parties involved, to chip in for part of the clean-up, whereas a plan they support might not cost them a single dime, simply because, well, when the EPA goes away, they might just forget to do it! (The City described the Superfund as "an adversarial process focused on enforcement and litigation." Don't you just hate law enforcement and people who sue you when you don't do the right thing?!)

There's also little explanation in the anti-Superfund camp of how or why Bloomberg suddenly whipped up a plan to fix the Gowanus after the Superfund showed up, whereas before that he seemed to be content with letting things be. As had every other Mayor—for decades! "Any cleanup plan proposed by the City would clean the canal to the same standards as Superfund," said the City. Funny, the timing, isn't it?

Take a look at the pictures of the canal on the nyc.gov site. They all look very pretty, don't they, no signs of sewage and refuse. Makes you want to live there. Then look at pictures on Pardon Me For Asking that are a tad more probing.

Recently, residents, including Katia Kelly of Pardon Me For Asking, started to notice anonymous, fear-mongering flyers being distributed around the neighborhood. We will be stigmatized!, they cried. The Feds will sue us to pay for the clean-up! It will take 20 years! The City can do it in two!

Only after extended negative exposure did the authors of this flyer actually sign their names to the screed of lies. Why, it was the Toll Brothers! Can you imagine? Plus dogged old Buddy and Debra Scotto, who can be counted on to be behind every bad and dishonest real estate idea along Court Street. (Poor old Buddy. He used to be a leading force in the area's rejuvenation, but now is just a shifty old nuisance who can't get around the idea that men with money don't always mean well.)

The Mayor's Office, meanwhile, showed how much it wanted to hear the people's voices on this urgent issue by scheduling "two meetings for the property and business owners who are adjacent to the Gowanus Canal to discuss the proposed listing and the City’s alternative plan." Problem is, he didn't notify any of them. Instead, the notification was sent to people in Fort Greene! The meetings, FYI, are on June 23 at 6 p.m. and June 24 at 6 p.m., and will be held at P.S. 32 at 317 Hoyt Street, near President.

The Brooklyn Paper, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, was there at today's press conference, and asked Skaller a few pointedly anti-Superfund questions, like "Do you think the government has a good record at clean-ups." But Marlene Donnelly, a founding member of FROGG, pretty much shut him up with a persuasive five-minute answer that reminded the reporter that the City has no record at cleaning anything up, took forever to come up with a plan, and that it is misleading to compare (as has been done) the tiny 1.8 mile long Gowanus Canal to the Superfund's efforts to clean a mighty river like the Hudson.

You know what this whole affair keeps reminding me of? That episode of "The Simpsons" where Montgomery Burns ran for Governor in order to prevent regulation of his nuclear plant. He was accused of polluting the area when a three-eyed fish was found in river downstream from the plant. Burns' campaign is only foiled when he's invited to a public dinner at the Simpson house and Marge surprises him by serving the three-eyed fish. Burns takes a bite, but spits it out, thus ending his campaign.

I might might believe the Toll Brothers and Bloomberg and DeBlasio more if they took a nice cooling swim in the "not that dirty" Gowanus.

[Picture courtesy of Pardon Me For Asking]


Kelly said...


Brooks of Sheffield said...

Bravo to you, Katia. You've been covering this closer than anyone.

Lisanne said...

Thank you for an amazing article...you hit the nail on the head on every point and the Simpson's comparison is RIGHT ON! The whole lot of these crooks are so easy to parody and this exclusive meeting that residents have to rsvp to attend just continues to show how non transparent their plan is. What a joke. On the residents. It's criminal.

The city has neglected this canal for decades and the only reason they are concerned now is because it's $talling their development$,,,,they really need to drop that line about superfund being a "stigma" to the neighborhood. It's insulting and I fortunately I don't think anyone is buying it.

Cynthia said...

SNL writers couldn't make this stuff up. And they get paid.
Thank you for this brilliant piece of writing.

Plow to Plate said...

Great story. Love the part where Marlene shut up Brooklyn Paper's anti-Superfund question with a 5-minute response. If anyone knows her business, its Marlene Donnely!!!

john evans said...

Congratulations on your self-rightous echo chamber. It's as seamless and fact-free as anything on Fox News.

triada said...

Bravo! This is just the sort of real life coverage we need.
I am SO SO SICK of those shiny expensive leaflets designed to misinform the public and waste TONS of unnecessary paper besides.

When will Mayor Mike Bloomberg get it?

You know, I have seen so many recent improvements in Greenwich Village these weeks: fewer cars, bike lanes, new sidewalks, new trees, flowers, etc.

Hey what about BROOKLYN Mr. Mayor? Aren't we gonna get clean and green and healthy too? Why do we thousands of Brooklynites have to get stuck living next to this carcinogenic canal while you refuse the Federal dollars for a comprehensive clean up?? Shame on you Mayor!

Would you live here? Canoe on the canal yourself? NOT.

I am waiting for the day to come when I can take a snapshot of Mayor Mike and and our very own Councilman Mr. DeBlasio (the 'MIA' Councilman who wants to be Public Advocate no less ) stepping foot in a canoe on the Gowanus Canal and paddling around WITHOUT their hazmat suits on. From there I want to see them peddle their insane view of residential development along Lavender Lake for all to see.

I can't wait for this day for us Brooklynites to show our children the kind of leadership we truly have, not the kind presented in the glossy flyers but the real slimy deal.

This is truly the story of the summer 2009. An ALL of NYC should know about it before the fast approaching election time.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thanks, John Evans! It sounds nice in here, because everyone makes sense and nobody is lying. How does it sound in your echo chamber?

Anonymous said...

You're right on. We've gotta stop taking this shit in Brooklyn. While the mayor and some of his commissioners are making major changes to make manhattan more environmentally friendly, they're trying to take away the existing environmental friendliness of Brooklyn such as the peace and quiet of an evening or Sunday afternoon along the Gowanus or sitting on the Carrol Street bridge. It just boggles my mind that 12 and 8 storey buildings are planned for the banks of the canal which will put incredible environmental pressure on this neighborhood, which doesn't want this development anyway. I mean to leave us alone to our own environmental friendliness could be seen as neglectful cmpared to the environmental initiatives in Manhattan, but then to promote this monstrosity is absoluly callous.

Mary in Carroll Gardens

BrooklynMF said...

One of my favorite examples of Toll's total disregard for health concerns was their environmental "expert" explaining their solution to any "dermal" pollution would be 2 feet of soil on top, stating this solved the problem because "we have learned children will not dig below two feet." That's science! no discussion of their own plans to plan 30 foot trees in this soil, let alone the leaching, water runoff...

Jason said...

Born and raised in NYC I get why there's so much controversy about the Gowanus but we should all remember a few things: Bloomberg's primary concern is not to please Toll but rather to make it possible for the continued redevelopment of the Gowanus area to occur so that the properties go up in value and create a much larger tax base----remember, now more than ever does the city need money to pay for new schools, infrastructure, etc.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Bilgewater, Jason. If Bloomberg was really concerned "the continued redevelopment of the Gowanus area," he would have done something about the last eight years. Like clean up the canal. A clean waterway would lead to increased property values, and a broader tax base. The cart has always been before the horse in this scenario. The money made by the Toll Brothers building now will not feed anyone but the Toll Brothers. It will not help the area in the long run.