Gowanus neighborhood residents generally fall into two camps: let’s develop it, or let’s keep the small-town, neighborhood feel. Each side has its leader: Buddy Scotto for the development and Linda Mariano for the neighborhood.
The New York Observer newspaper recently called Mariano the “Jane Jacobs of the Gowanus,” referencing the 1950s urban writer who famously critiqued progressive urban planning ideas and staunchly supported her West Village hamlet.
But if you mention the Gowanus Canal, people will ask if you’ve met Buddy Scotto.
Scotto, 81, is a second-generation, lifelong Carroll Gardens resident and funeral home director who has been advocating for a cleanup of the canal and residential construction along its shores since 1967. Known as the “Mayor of Carroll Gardens,” Scotto’s ideas for the canal are to build a river walk similar to one in San Antonio, with esplanades and waterfront cafes along with the construction of affordable and senior housing. Scotto is staunchly in favor of private development — and the city’s rezoning proposal to multi-use from manufacturing — in exchange for an affordable housing component.
“There are people with different agendas for different ideas,” he said, noting that the fight has and always be a long, drawn-out one. “They realize that it’s very difficult to convince people that any of these ideas are practical.”
Starting in the 1960s, Scotto worked with developers and community leaders to redevelop the old neighborhood and attract young families to the neighborhood. Developers converted old factories to apartment buildings and brought in amenities like daycare and senior centers. When private developers approached the neighborhood several years ago and signaled that they wanted to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into redeveloping the neighborhood, Scotto loved the idea.
Buddy Scotto shared his thoughts on the future of the canal after a community meeting about the Superfund designation in March, hosted by the EPA.
But all that redevelopment hangs in the balance now. Opponents say the EPA Superfund plan carries with it a stigma, and Scotto feels it will scare the private sector away. Instead, Scotto supported an alternative city plan to use polluters to voluntarily pay for the cleanup and did not carry with it the Superfund name. Already, the developer Toll Brothers has pulled plans for a 450-unit waterfront condo project.
“The federal government coming in an declaring it a Superfund site, it scares the hell out of the private developers,” Scotto said. “We have lost hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector money that wanted to come in immediately and now are not doing it.”
Mariano, 66, sees things differently.
“There can be other ways of cleaning the land besides cleaning the land for people to be living on,” she said.
In 2004, Mariano, her husband, and longtime community members including Margaret Maugenest and Marlene Donnelly started the Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus, or FROGG, with the vision of restoring the area to what it once was environmentally — wetlands and wildlife — while reimagining how to use the abandoned warehouse stock as museums, educational spaces, or for light industry. Since she started FROGG, dozens of community members stepped up to help spread the word about the importance of Superfunding the canal.
“Luxury development doesn’t belong here,” she added. “We have certain unique aspects to our neighborhood that we want to preserve and should be preserved.”
There are other neighborhood organizations on either side of the discussion as well. Some advocate elements of large-scale developers’ proposals; others support the city’s 2008 rezoning plan to add residential zoning to the manufacturing zone. The Superfund designation has put that plan on hold.
Between Community Board 6, FROGG, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, Carroll Gardens Coalition to Respectfully Develop (CORD), Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association and others, there exists as many opinions on how to revamp the canal as there are stakeholders in the discussion.
What ultimately will happen is unknown, but one thing is certain: neighborhood watchdogs and bloggers like Katia Kelly at Pardon Me For Asking, Lisanne McTernan at Found in Brooklyn will keep tabs on who is saying what, when, and at what cost to the future of their neighborhood.