This Stinks! But for How Long?

East, East Coast
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
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Newtown Creek spills into the East River and Manhattan. (Promaine/Flickr)

UPDATE:The mayor called. See more below.

It should come as no surprise that a local government supported the Superfund designation of one of its most polluted waterways. Unless that government happens to be the Bloomberg administration, which has vehemently opposed “blighting” the Gowanus Canal and environs by naming the polluted Brooklyn waterway a Superfund site. That opposition remains firmly in place. What is surprising, though, as the Brooklyn Paper reported Friday, is that the administration, in testimony submitted to the EPA on December 23, came out in favor of designating Newtown Creek, a place in constant competition with the Gowanus for most reviled in the borough. The big difference, it would appear, is that the Gowanus’ northerly sibling has but award-winning poop processors lining its banks, and not the prospect of condos. Though that prospect could be fading fast.

A rendering of Toll Brother's imperiled Gowanus development project, replete with water taxi along the majestic waterway. (Courtesy Toll Brothers)

Curbed informs us that Toll Brothers may be trying to back down from its plans to build a 450-unit mixed-use, mixed-income project on the canal, as the developer owes money for the purchase of its three-acre property. The $21.5 million deal was contingent on Toll getting the area rezoned from industrial to commercial, which they did back in the spring. But because of the pending Superfund decision—likely to come down this spring—the developer has been dragging its feet, resulting in a series of suits between them and the former owners of the land.

The Bronx "Swamp," another polluted waterway—of sorts—recently cleaned up by the Bloomberg administration (Jason Post/Office of the Mayor)

Which brings us back to the mayor’s office. Mark LaVorgna, a Bloomberg spokesperson, defends the city’s seemingly contradictory positions to the Paper thusly: “They are different situations and we evaluate each one independently. Each situation is not the same.” But if the process is too slow and litigious for Gowanus, shouldn’t that be the same case for Newtown Creek as well, condos or no condos? This could have as much to do with repeated fears that the city is attempting to avoid a Superfund suit of its own from the EPA for various violations, from stormwater overflow to a DOT cement plant, as there are no known problems of the sort on the creek. The (open) question remains whether the city can get the job done.

Could the swamp, seen here after its successful clean-up, bode oth well and ill for the Gowanus?

It reminds us of another piece of pre-Christmas news, the cleaning of the “Bronx Swamp,” where the city pumped 625,000 gallons—five times the amount of water originally expected therein—out of a mile-long, below grade railroad passage. At first, it appears the city is more than capable of undertaking such work, given that the administration got the job done. But at the same time, the amount of work was grossly underestimated—fivefold, even—and what’s worse, the city’s been left holding the bag, having been unable to find responsible parties to charge the $350,000 cleanup cost. And yet this is exactly what city officials claim to be able to do on the Gowanus, which is expected to cost, at a minimum, $1 billion.

UPDATE 1/14: LaVorgna phoned us late yesterday to to take issue with our supposition of the Paper‘s innuendo that the administration was being sneaky in submitting its testimony on December 23. Initially, we wrote that “the administration ever so quietly—on the eve of Christmas Eve, to be exact, December 23—submitted testimony.” LaVorgna pointed out that that is simply when the public comment period ended. “We didn’t set that date, the EPA did,” he told us by phone. As for the assertion that there was something to the city’s differing positions on Newtown and Gowanus, LaVorgna reiterated what he told the Paper, that the city cannot, at Newtown, utilize the expertise of the Army Corps for the cleanup nor are there willing parties to pay for it. “If we could, we would, but they’re totally different situations,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Daily News looked into the Toll suit today, the Brooklyn Paper wrote a scathing editorial on the city’s bifurcated position, and it looks like the Creek will need a serious clean after all, as a local company has been accused of illegal dumping into the waterway.

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