GOWANUS — Can Gowanus preserve its industrial grittiness while adding green space?
That's one of the questions Gowanus residents confronted Monday night during the kickoff of Bridging Gowanus, a series of public meetings where locals will map how they want the rapidly changing neighborhood to develop.
Elected officials and community leaders are hosting the sessions with the goal of creating a locally driven blueprint to guide city planners' decisions in the neighborhood.
Without input from locals, Gowanus will be swallowed up by the interests of developers, cautioned State Assemblywoman Joan Millman at Monday's meeting. Major changes are already afoot: A Whole Foods market will open next week, and work started recently on the 700-unit Lightstone Group development.
"If we don't have a proactive plan, [developers] will pick it apart and do what they want, and we can't have that," Millman said.
Millman pointed to new residential development along nearby Fourth Avenue as a worst-case scenario, where developers had free rein and the community "got nothing" in return — no school, no outdoor space, and no "community life."
At Monday's meeting, the standing-room-only crowd of about 200 people heard first from an organizer with the Pratt Center for Community Development, who presented the results of an initial planning session in August where stakeholders outlined top priorities.
The list includes fixing the neighborhood's fragile environmental infrastructure, which leaves it vulnerable to flooding. Residents also want to shore up the area's "community and social infrastructure" by adding more school seats and public open space. Locals are also very concerned about preserving the area's "grittiness" and keeping housing affordable, Pratt organizer Elena Conte told the crowd.
Another key desire is to keep the notoriously toxic Gowanus Canal open and accessible to the public, possibly by adding walkways around the waterway, Conte said.
"Despite its current state of contamination and disrepair, the Gowanus Canal itself emerged as [a] strong, key shared value," Conte said. "People spoke of a magical feeling that its open waters convey, and of its potential to become a high-quality public amenity."
After Conte ran through the list of "shared values," attendees at Monday's meeting broke into small groups to discuss which were most important to them, and what they thought was missing from list.
At future sessions, participants will come up with "creative solutions" to implement those values, and then decide how to settle differences, City Councilman Brad Lander said.
He and other elected officials acknowledged that there's disagreement over how development should unfold in Gowanus — some say new building shouldn't be allowed at all, while others welcome the changes.
"There will be a phase of the process that tries to deal honestly with tradeoffs, because there are conflicting ideas and tradeoffs that have to be considered," Lander said.
The next Bridging Gowanus meeting will take place in February. Check the website for details.