Gowanus Canal CAG Meeting
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Mary Star of the Sea Senior Apartments, 41 1st Street
Doug Sarno opened the meeting at 6:35 p.m.
Christos Tsiamis, Remedial Project Manager for EPA, presented the updates.
The 4th Street Basin Pilot Project
The preparation work for the pilot has been arduous and taken longer than planned. The silver lining is that this is a pilot. A big part of the pilot is to identify any problems with the technologies we will be using now before we begin the actual work. EPA anticipates being able to begin dredging by the first week of March.
Historical Preservation Analysis for Building at Nevins & Butler Street
John Vetter, EPA archaeological consultant, presented an overview of the historical preservation work.
This is part of an ongoing process that many here have been a part of. We looked at the turning basin, did we find any exciting artifacts? No. We haven’t even found what we anticipated, which would be a great collection of handguns. Now they’re looking at 8-million-gallon sewer overflow tanks, which means the city faces constraints in the siting and engineering of the facility. The EPA’s responsibility suggests that under Section 106, we have to identify what is there and if construction of the facility will have an effect on any historic facilities and how we could avoid, minimize or mitigate these impacts. EPA is working with its partners and getting input from all of them, including NY State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, NYC DEP, and the community. EPA wants feedback on the potential historic impacts and the options to mitigate those impacts.
Kevin Clark and Alicia West presented from NYC Department of Environmental Protection
The outline of the total excavation for the tanks building takes up the area 15 feet from Nevins Street inward beyond the existing building footprint, and a 50-foot setback from the Canal. Excavation will be 40 to 60 feet deep and filled in with concrete like a giant bathtub, and has to be big enough to contain the tanks and all associated equipment and support spaces. The footprint is intended to be constructed at the location of the corner of Nevins and Butler because of the location of the RH 43 outfall for the proposed head house. We are also trying to maximize open space.
The existing buildings on the site were not built to the structural and seismic levels we build today. We have design drawings but not as built drawings, so we don’t know exactly how the buildings are constructed. Even after the excavation, there is a chance that the buildings may not withstand construction. Also, the geotechnical specifications make the buildings now more fragile.
The existing Gowanus Distribution Station building dates from 1913 and has been modified several times since. It is two stories flanked by a one-story addition. It was originally constructed by NYC’s then-equivalent of DEP. It is Beaux Arts style as can be seen through the Keystone scrolls, large windows, and decorative pediment. It was meant to be stables and a locker room. Historic preservation professionals said in terms of alteration, there have been significant moderations/alterations in the 1960s from private ownership. The façade is deteriorating from water damage and freeze-thaw because there was nothing in place to wick the water away. The bluestone base is exfoliating so upper levels are peeling away. New roll up doors, new doors, and other interventions into the walls are present. Interior photos shows that it has changed a lot since it was a stable. Spalling brick, partially bricked-up windows, poor joints and bad matching of brick from 1970s construction. Overall, the DEP team found little redundancy, a very brittle building, unreinforced, and a floating ground floor slab not connected to the building wall.
DEP does nothing on a whim. We evaluate the value to the expense. We developed alternatives trying to retain the facades and also deconstructing, shipping elsewhere, then reconstructing. Overall, DEP does not think it is technically feasible or prudent to retain the building in place. We estimate it would cost $70 million to keep it and would result in significant financial and technical issues for the project.
The building is architecturally interesting, so DEP’s idea is to reintegrate the nicer building elements into the new building design. The pediment is especially great and everyone’s favorite piece of the building and what DEP wants to reintegrate – saving the pediment has always been in the demolition package, along with other architectural features.
John Vetter discussed the process moving forward
No historic buildings meet current code so that’s not exactly how worth is determined. Ability to meet new roles is something that is weighed. What gives buildings value is the way they were put together. When considering adverse effect, we look at preservation, moving it elsewhere, not doing anything, and also mitigation of those adverse affects short of saving the whole building, and that’s what’s happening now. We look at what can be done to enhance the understanding of what we know about this building and make ourselves feel some record or remembrance of it. This could be architectural, could be photography, could be how it was made, the people who can tell us about the building, because we still don’t know a whole lot about it. It needs context and something consistent with a better understanding to people down the road. The interpretation needs to happen with the recordation and community in mind. Looking for notions of what might constitute mitigation – does the current building rendering look like the neighborhood? Maybe not – maybe it should. Reports have finally been compiled so all the consulting groups are working on looking at the buildings and consequences/results of work in the parcels.
The New York State Preservation Office noted that we can’t save every building. We love historic buildings. We want to hear from the community as part of this process.
Questions and Answers
CAG: Most of the buildings are way older than the distribution station. Has the design for the tank or head house been finalized? To condemn this building when DEP’s design is not approved seems premature – we aren’t at that stage yet. To me, I don’t think we can talk until the design is approved. Community involvement is important. I’m on the archaeology committee and we never heard anything until today, who have you spoken to?
SHPO: Section 106 says it is EPA’s job to talk to you all.
DEP: We submitted the baseline design to EPA and have received some comments, but are following the ULURP process for the parcels, so we do have to submit conceptual design to accompany the plans/what is filed. Is not every detail, like how thick the concrete is. DEP is required to complete the 100% design by April of next year, and construction package 3 by September of next year.
EPA: We have a conceptual agreement of what goes into it but not what the site is – EPA has not yet approved the building at the current state as presented by DEP
CAG: This building was important because of what the city was and what was given to Brooklyn – one of the first buildings given to Brooklyn and this undermines that historic precedent. Federally there is supposed to be a Memorandum of Agreement between SHPO and EPA – how is there a process without an agreement? How could 106 take place without this?
Vetter: For the agency to commit to something that causes an adverse effect and it looks like it is appropriate; it follows upon finding out what those adverse effects are based on construction and mitigation and then proceeding.
SHPO: No MOA has been signed yet, we will not sign until things seem right. Programmatic agreement means that an MOA would identify the adverse effects and keep 106 moving forward – hoping to determine those effects.
CAG: The interior space has no clear value, but the exterior has value – is it possible to have that exterior façade be incorporated in the side of the head house?
EPA: EPA was thinking based on what NYC said that every other aspect of preservation was costly/didn’t make sense. EPA was thinking of saving the pediment and looking into saving both the facade and pediment. This would fall in the range of mitigating options that would be in the MOA.
CAG: The reference to the city ULURP is misleading because it is conceptual, not what the building will actually look like, and we have seen no effort to involve the CAG, the Community Board, or the appearance of the building. You can design the outside to meet community needs and have the inside for whatever it needs – no question the inside is not worth saving but have seen nothing on the design of the building.
DEP: CB6 talked about the architecture and landscape architecture, I said I would come back with more. DEP is moving along these processes and has many steps.
CAG: Okay, but you need to show it to all groups: CB6, CAG, community groups/organizations, others – the outside needs to reflect the industrial landscape of Gowanus.
CAG: Why did you change your mind and concur with DEP? DEP doesn’t own this building – it would cost a fortune for eminent domain, why not go back to the ROD and put the tanks under the pool?
SHPO: We think the building contributes to the Gowanus Canal Historic District – the engineering analysis and draft EIS and siting studies informed and showed the purpose and need of project that the engineering is beyond what SHPO knows and that the tank construction would be adverse. Now is the time to talk about mitigating harm or forming the MOA.
DEP: Why not go back to the park? Taking away community space from a community starved from lack of public space would be bad – DEP and DPR work together and try hard to avoid messing up the park or taking away the park or a third of the parkland. This solution gives 1.6 acres more open space than taking away park property. Eminent domain is not preferential for the city or DEP.
CAG: How do we deal with this in terms of the context of the Gowanus community? Visioning process for the north end, the zoning framework, the Eastern Effects site, the possible pivot, the pool, and 25 months of all of this and the projects happening at the same time. We need to create a community visioning process and plan, but we keep narrowing it down, and need the support of elected leadership to have a forum. There is no architect or expert designer in the room right now, and we can’t have a conversation about this project without any expert planner/architect/designer. Borough President Adams, Council Member Levin, and others are all in favor of this. That’s what happened with Lightstone (365 Bond now), and it is about to happen all over again and that’s a mistake. The Land Use Committee is writing a resolution to push for a more comprehensive visioning process.
CAG: There is a big distinction between tanks here and at the park– has SHPO seen the smaller design? And for DEP, what would be the downside of designing this way – the smaller way – is it still possible?
SHPO: There was probably a conceptual design in one of the reports seen, can’t say for sure, but doesn’t remember an above-ground design. Both plans have negative impact on cultural and community facilities.
CAG: Still think it is possible for a more compact design to allow for everything to be saved.
EPA: We wouldn’t hang our hat on that – there has been an order under which the city is operating and unless something happens with land acquisition it involves building a tank at the top of the canal.
SHPO: We asked why it can’t it be small enough and on a site that wouldn’t be jeopardized and that is when DEP responded with the engineering reports showing their requirements. SHPO does not have the capacity to review such technical requirements, we trust DEP is telling us what it will take.
DEP: If we shrink down the footprint, then we have to go deeper, which creates more expensive and more complicated construction. Our design improves access, and maintenance of the tank. To maintain and replace equipment over time, we need as shallow a tank as possible. This would allow the park to stay used, and these community facility decisions, like not building in the park, are sacrifices DEP is prioritizing.
CAG: Trying to move into thinking about the future – are there conceptual designs of the facades you can share?
DEP: The design goals are to design a state-of-the-art CSO facility, establish thoughtful design that respects character and feel of the neighborhood, employs materials evocative of the eligible district’s significance, salvage architectural elements for reuse, and provide first-rate waterfront open space.
Vetter: Seldorff Architects & Landscape are the consultants here. Are they going to be informed about preservation and work with SHPO, aware of the challenges?
DEP: Yes, absolutely aware.
Vetter: This group wants to see the renderings. We know there’s likely part of a windmill and cool archeological stuff that will be excavated, and resources despite the substantial amount of fill.
SHPO: The first step is to gather ground information to find details about level of the fill and context that could contain archaeology, so we’re waiting on that.
CAG: What do you mean by “first-rate waterfront public open space”?
DEP: There is a great landscape architect working with it, and aware of the constraints, the goal is to create an open space for the public and an esplanade.
CAG: Does it mean that there will be a “take-out” or launch point at some point when the canal is clean?
DEP: We don’t know, but will take a note of that.
CAG: What does a water supply distribution station do? Where did the water come from? The building façade says it is the Gowanus station – were there others?
DEP: No water was coming there but employees were – likely more of a garage. Not actually a pumping station but like a crew quarters.
CAG: So you’re saying this building is one of a kind? The ASPCA was started in Gowanus because of the horses across the street.
CAG: We need a community design for this whole thing – we have ideas about what you are going to put forward in May/June. It would be great if the City came to the community first; we are interested in an interpretive community service/building.
EPA: Newtown Creek has their own interpretive center.
CAG: Empire Stores is a great waterfront. Very “instagrammable.” Would be wonderful for the Gowanus Dredgers if there could be access from the foaming white head that is like a cappuccino into an exit so people could actually have a cappuccino.
DEP: Construction package 1 was delivered June of 2017. We are working on that construction contract which is demolition, and which depends on procurement. We are working through the ULURP process by end of April. If there is a willing buyer/transaction, it would probably be 6 to 12 months to close, but an eminent domain process could be quicker. The order requires the first demolition to happen within five months of acquisition date, so the contract should be procured by the fall of this year.
EPA: Construction contracts take a long time to put in place, so last minute decisions and these conversations happening can still impact what is going to happen with preservation and how it all looks. If the result is that part of the building is saved, if that is what comes out of this consultation, that would mean either it would not be incorporated in the contract, or delays might occur in executing the demolition. The decision on how much/what to save on the building needs to happen soon because there is a longer time period for building design.
CAG: How can it happen without the contract?
Vetter: The MOA will be in place before the demolition contract occurs. Many of these pieces have to happen in parallel – the actual steps of mitigation will likely occur in the summer – the input on what parts of the building will need to happen before that and there is time.
CAG: Why isn’t the assumption in the construction project just to preserve as much as possible and then go back?
DEP: Would not be a small effort to go back; would have to redo the design.
CAG: Why did LPC decide not to landmark the building?
LPC: They weighed in on the ULURP that it didn’t merit for individual designation. These are not applications, they were requests for evaluating the building for merit, comparative analysis, and similar buildings. Of similar type and style. There were serious alterations to the building. We have designated industrial buildings like the IRT Powerhouse. We are also looking for whole neighborhood preservation now.
CAG: This is key and this is surprising because so many said the building was important.
LPC: We are the regulatory agency looking to work with groups on findings – and accept changes to buildings all the time – how can you make these bridges and buildings work together.
CAG: For the sake of argument, if the building were landmarked, would it stop the construction of the tank?
LPC: Think the previous answer answers it.
Public: Any privately owned buildings apply to the kind of industrial historic ones? Is it odd that one was on the verge of being landmarked and then all of a sudden not? Does it look suspicious because it used to be?
Vetter: SHPO and DEP say it is part of the national historic register as a piece of a district and that designation does not affect this work. Significant structures in NYC are often at odds with National Register designation.
CAG: Seems like many of these studies are getting done and seems like there is a predetermined outcome.
CAG: Conference by state for building is only protected by state landmarking.
Vetter: The protection of the National Register doesn’t prevent a building from coming down – 106 when sponsored by a federal agency like the EPA can result in mitigation or avoidance.
EPA: We are not bound by S106 to preserve a building – only bound to look at mitigation and other parts of an environmental/ engineering process. Given the structural characteristics, it is an impossibility to protect the building.
Vetter: Interpretive Center might be one of the kinds of mitigation that could work – we need some of the historical narrative there.
CAG: Yes, but we also need the building or no one will pay attention to it.
CAG: Preserving the pediment, can the whole thing come off intact?
DEP: There’s the pediment, bluestone coping, scrolls, windowsills, those are the types of things – the terracotta which DEP has good experience with so it is possible – there are specialists for this work.
EPA: There is no saying what happens to that building if the tank moves to the park to preserve that building. The property owner could take it down – with section 106 if the site is on this building site, the EPA wants to take your visions into account for the mitigation. Seems clear that preservation of the entire building is not going to happen. John Vetter will be heavily involved in that collaboration and will advise the EPA. EPA urges the CAG to pass comments and community involved to write back to the EPA. We feel it is doable to preserve, given the wishes of community.
CAG: Can DEP provide the CAG with the elevation and tank and renderings of the head house?
EPA: Actually – EPA hasn’t resolved all the issues with DEP – so no, DEP can’t yet.
CAG: The historic use was a stable and yard and dates back to the Civil War period. The current pediment marks the time when NYC took over Brooklyn facilities and adapted it. The building sits across from the ASPCA, founded to help protect the work horse. Gowanus had dozens of horse stables, also Lavender Lake. Recently a Bond Street stable was destroyed, all that is left of its “recordation” are the granite pillars left behind as street furniture. This structure represents how we once lived on this landscape in the past, how we built Brooklyn with house power. Commemorating this as a sewage-education spot, as suggested, is not an adequate representation of the history the building embodies.
CAG: Important now to figure out how to discuss and identify talking to the community moving forward on this issue. Possible CAG action will go through the committees, and members will think about it in the next few months. It is important to coordinate and think about moving forward, and developing these ideas in the context of tonight.
EPA: EPA would be hoping to get any comments for S106 by the end of April.
Action on the signs cautioning people about eating animals from the Gowanus is pushed to next month. A new resolution is on the table to address disposable water bottles, and community organizations to stop using them (which there is a state bill about too) will also present next month.
Motion for the CAG to Support the Superfund Reauthorization Act
Congresswoman Velázquez’s Superfund Reauthorization bill proposal was distributed to everybody. The money for the Superfund expired in 1995. This bill would provide money for businesses forced to relocate, provide SBA disaster loans and economic injury loans, create an opportunity if a business is forced to move and could avail themselves of resources. EPA has a program that does help reimburse some but isn’t adequate as it just helps for initial move not for moving back.
Vote was 17 and 3 abstain. The motion passed.
The meeting adjourned at 8:30 PM.
CAG Members and Active Alternates
Michelle de la Uz
Rafael Gomez de Luna
Stephen Kondaks (alternate for John McGettrick)
Sue Wolfe (alternate for Sabine Aronowsky)
Maryann Young (alternate for Rita Miller)
Other Alternates Present
Doug Sarno, Facilitator
Christos Tsiamis, EPA
Natalie Loney, EPA
Brian Carr, EPA
NYS Historic Preservation Office
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
Kevin Clark & Alicia West, NYC DEP
John Vetter, EPA Consultant