On Tuesday July 9th, the day after our presentation event at the Flanders House, we kicked off the Streetscape Territories Gowanus Workshop at the Van Alen Institute. All 25 participants (European students and young professionals in architecture and urban design/planning) gathered to explore the challenges and potentials of this manufacturing neighborhood.
The Gowanus Canal and Harbor area has been an active center of manufacturing and shipping activity since the mid nineteenth century in the borough of Brooklyn: it is mainly zoned for manufacturing though it includes also residential and various commercial activities. The Gowanus area is cut into several parts by metro infrastructure and an expressway and presents a rather heterogeneous character, including very active areas as well as some clusters of abandoned industrial buildings or properties. During the last decades, the whole area became under pressure, as residential developers tried to appropriate this almost unexploited area. This led to a slight rezoning, allowing more residential or commercial uses, devaluating the local manufacturing economy. Lately, many urban projects have been proposed and some of them approved for this area: from big scale residential complexes (Toll Brothers, Lightstone Group…) to huge commercial containers (self storage facilities, Wholefoods…), changing the dynamics and rhythm of growth and transformation in the canal area. Other types of new projects emerged as well, by individual and collective initiatives, part of a creative class, adding complexity to the neighborhood’s life experience. This happened at a rather small scale, contrasting with big scale infrastructures and related manufacturing activities: small galleries can be found next to giant concrete factories.
A year ago, superstorm Sandy destroyed or flooded many buildings, properties, streets and public spaces, presenting another challenge for this neighborhood in full transformation. Storm threats, together with the ongoing rising of the sea level, however might present an opportunity for the area, the borough and the city, to reorient its future in a sustainable way. As a response to these mentioned threats, studies are made and coherent proposals are done by universities, non-profit organizations, private institutions, real estate companies and various administrations. The declaration of the area as a federal superfund site (that will focus on chemical cleaning of the canal area) undoubtedly changed the possibilities for this area: it brings a ten-year freezing of many developments, maybe the time needed to face as well the needed biological clean-up of the area (solving for example the Combined Sewer Overflow problem). The challenge will be to explore alternative scenarios for possible hard-core (corporate) waterfront promotions, far too predictable “domestication by cappucino” (Zukin, 1995) policies or no-risk/please-all development scenarios that might produce too meaningless (exclusively residential and consumer-based) environments for people to appropriate. At the contrary, a scenario that tries to maintain the Gowanus canal as a “productive” area, considering local and small scale manufacturing a priority, might be a way out.