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Luncheon serves up Canal under microscope

Roast chicken and Greek salad may have been on the menu, but developers had less palatable fare on their minds at a luncheon this week: the fetid Gowanus Canal.

At the quarterly Brooklyn Real Estate Roundtable luncheon, held at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Pierrepont Street, a city official and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presented their views on how best to cleanse the waterway of a legacy of pollutants that makes it one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

The EPA, represented by assistant regional counsel Brian Carr, favors designating the canal a Superfund site, making it part of a federal program reserved for cleaning up the country’s most toxic properties.

The city, whose representative was Caswell Holloway, chief of staff to the deputy mayor for operations and a special adviser to the mayor, has hatched an alternative plan it feels will clean the canal as well as the EPA, but would avoid the stigma of the designation. Some $400 million in private investment along the waterway could be jeopardized if the canal is named a Superfund site, the city has alleged.

The city’s alternative plan relies on the Water Resources Development Act, which would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the canal, which is considered a navigable channel.Up to 65 percent of the work could be federally funded, which the city feels will reduce cleanup costs for those responsible for polluting the canal, thereby giving them the incentive to sign binding agreements and get the work done. Under the Superfund program, those responsible for the pollution are compelled to pay for the clean up.

Carr was peppered with questions from David Von Spreckelsen, a senior vice president with Toll Brothers, who called the answers “inadequate.”

“The issue is essentially the uncertainty that comes with a Superfund project,” Von Spreckelsen said afterward. “That uncertainty is problematic for real estate development.”

Toll is planning a 605,380-square-foot development with 477 residential units on two city blocks bounded by the canal, Bond Street, 2nd Street and Carroll Street.

“We have a site that is zoned and we want to build on it. We are told — pre-Superfund — that the city is going to improve the combined sewage overflow (CSO) issue [a problem that contributes to the canal’s foul aroma]. We are comfortable with that and make plans to go forward,” Von Spreckelsen said. “Then Superfund comes in and the city says it is not sure when it will be able to address the CSO issue.That gives us huge pause because that is the issue impacting quality of life and now we don’t know when it is going to be addressed.This uncertainty is not good for us.”

He added that the uncertainty has a “huge detrimental effect” on banks and insurance companies and their willingness to get involved in the area. “Without those institutional players, you don’t have real estate development,” Von Spreckelsen said.

Carr said the EPA and the city “share the same goal” of a clean canal, and that designating it a Superfund site will streamline its cleanup. EPA officials have previously called the city’s plan overly complex.

Whichever option is selected, the cleanup will take between eight to nine years to complete, both sides said.

An announcement could come as soon as mid-September.

All proceeds from the luncheon went to the Brooklyn Historical Society.

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