Public Place is a 6-acre brownfield in Brooklyn located between Smith Street and the Gowanus Canal south of 5th Street. A manufactured gas plant owned by Brooklyn Union Gas occupied the site from the 1860s through 1959. During this near-century of operation, the plant contaminated the land; coal tar and other toxic materials are estimated to reach 120 feet underground and may have spread to sites on the opposite side of the canal.
In the 1960s, Brooklyn Union sold the property to a private company, which subsequently sold and leased portions of the site to private companies. In 1975 the city acquired most of the site through condemnation proceedings, renamed it “Public Place,” and asserted that it be converted to use as “a public recreation space.” However, due to the lack of funding and political will for a comprehensive cleanup, the land remained largely dormant for decades.
Brooklyn Union Gas evolved into the contemporary energy company KeySpan (now named National Grid), which assumed responsibility for cleaning up the site. In 2003 KeySpan entered a Voluntary Cleanup Agreement with the State of New York, and, in cooperation with the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), began evaluating the feasibility and cost of such a cleanup.
The following year the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC) released a Comprehensive Community Plan for the revitalization and redevelopment of the neighborhood. The plan identified the Public Place site as a likely prospect for mixed-use development.
In February 2007 the DEC released a plan to remediate the site. At the time, media outlets estimated that a thorough rehabilitation of the site would cost as much as $700 million and take as long as 12 years. The DEC’s more limited plan proposed replacing the top eight feet of soil and covering the contaminants beneath this with a “surface barrier.” Local groups pushed for a variety of uses for the site once the cleanup was completed.
The Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation advocated for a mixed-use development on the site while the Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus proposed a natural cleanup that would take much longer and significantly delay any new construction.
Following the 2007 release of the DEC plan, the City solicited bids for the development of Public Place, in anticipation of proposed zoning changes that would allow for residential construction on the formerly industrial site. The city ultimately selected the proposals by developers The Related Companies and The Hudson Companies as finalists. Keyspan commenced with the cleanup in April of 2008, and officials anticipated that the site would be cleaned and fully developed by 2012.
In February of 2009, the City picked the proposal by The Hudson Companies, which envisioned a complex named “Gowanus Green,” including a public park and 774 apartments, 541 of which would be reserved at below-market rate. The City planned to provide funding for the project through the Housing Development Corporation’s Low Income-Affordable Marketplace Program. Construction was expected to begin in the spring of 2010 and to be completed by 2014.
At the time of the City’s announcement, The Hudson Companies indicated that it would not seek financing for the project until the cleanup was completed. Representatives of Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 also indicated that the necessary zoning changes were not assured, and the project would require passage through the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP).
Some local groups oppose the Hudson plan, claiming that it circumvented the original stated use of a “public recreation space,” and that public meetings held by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) didn’t provide adequate avenues for input from local residents.