Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Giant Apartment Project Planned for Gowanus Shore

The Lightstone Group is planning to construct a huge rental apartment complex on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens. The proposed apartment development will include 700-rental unit, and will cost around $257 million to complete. Despite concerns from community leaders, Lightstone Group, led by David Lichtenstein, has responded that it will not put the plan on hold, and claims the project's design already addresses flooding and contamination issues. Lightstone aims to start construction within nine months.

Sandy's flood waters hadn't even fully receded when the conversation in the city's design community turned to the question of building—or rebuilding—the city to minimize damage in future natural disasters.

In Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood, the focus of that discussion has been on the polluted, green-hued Gowanus Canal, on whose banks the Lightstone Group is planning a huge rental apartment complex.

Renderings of the project show two block-y buildings with lots of glass, trimmed in orange and black and hemmed in from the water by a tree-lined promenade.

Some Brooklyn residents—including City Council member Brad Lander—are calling for the project to be reconsidered. They point out that Sandy's storm surge breached the canal and flooded a block-long area on both of its sides.

"As you are no doubt aware, the site of your proposed development was under several feet of water during the storm," Mr. Lander said last week in a letter to Lightstone that he posted on his website. The letter asked the company to "reconsider—and, for the time being, withdraw" its plans for the 700-unit, $257 million project so that the community could "rethink our approach to the development of areas along the water's edge."

However, Lightstone, led by scrappy New York native David Lichtenstein, has responded that it will not put the plan on hold, and claims the project's design already addresses flooding issues.

"We had FEMA maps that anticipated conditions like this. We had already been planning for storms like this. I think we've got a development here that's going to be fine," said David West, the project's architect. In addition, he said, the design process for the project is ongoing, and the Lightstone team is fine-tuning the plan in response to the storm. "Maybe we'll find we want to raise the level a little more, but it will be relatively easy to do that. I don't foresee there being any serious design changes," Mr. West said.

The dust-up highlights the tension that exists between the fast-moving real-estate development business and the pensive, academic pace of urban planning.

Gowanus is an area fraught with legal and planning issues since the federal government declared it a Superfund cleanup site in 2010, scaring off some developers who were worried about environmental remediation issues.

Some locals, including Mr. Lander, want development on the canal to stay quiet until the city can devise with a master plan that addresses zoning, promotes new projects and coordinates with the Environmental Protection Agency's effort to clean up the canal.

Real-estate professionals look at the area and see a neighborhood in flux that is attracting young, professional residents, artist studios and hip restaurants. They want to capitalize on its momentum by building housing and commercial projects. Lightstone, for one, aims to start construction on its project within nine months.

The destruction caused by Sandy has given ammunition to the wait-and-see-and-plan crowd. David Briggs, a local architect and co-founder of Gowanus by Design, a neighborhood advocacy group that is pro-development but also supports strong planning rules, said he visited a friend on Second Street, less than a block from the canal, whose basement was flooded with six feet of water a day after the storm hit.

"I could have gone swimming in there," Mr. Briggs said. He supports the project generally, but agrees with Mr. Lander that more planning is required.

"We want to see the project happen, but we prefer it that happens within the context of a master plan," Mr. Briggs said.

Nevertheless, Lightstone said its design was uncommonly prescient and already took into account Sandy-size flood surges. The current design calls for a complex of two buildings with no basement space to house mechanical or electrical systems. In its place a concrete slab that will keep the ground floor of the building at least a foot and a half above the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 100-year flood plain, according to the disaster relief agency's latest maps.

To passersby, the building's ground floor will appear to begin between one and six feet above the sidewalk, depending upon which part of the building it is.

Lightstone also plans to raise the grade of First Street—which bifurcates the project's site between Bond Street and the canal—so that it slopes more gradually toward the canal, and maybe to build flood gates around the project's parking areas.

"Hurricane Sandy’s of the future will not put a drop of water into this project," said Ethan Geto, a representative working on behalf of Lightstone.

The council member, however, still is not convinced. He said he expects new flood maps to be released by federal officials in the coming months. In the meantime, Lightstone this month was scheduled to go before the city's Planning Commission for approvals related to building permits, though a date has not been specified.

"I can't tell you what the storm surge was on the site, but neither can Lightstone. For them to suggest that their design is appropriate without even having seen the FEMA maps suggests that they are not the least bit interested in being thoughtful about reality," Mr. Lander said. "We'd be fools not to incorporate the experience we just had going forward."