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Two Gowanus Canal Cleanup Projects Gearing Up

By Leslie Albrecht | October 14, 2015 2:43pm
 A rendering of the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, which was first proposed in 2008. Construction started this week on the park, which will sit at the end of Second Street overlooking the Gowanus Canal.
A rendering of the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, which was first proposed in 2008. Construction started this week on the park, which will sit at the end of Second Street overlooking the Gowanus Canal.
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GOWANUS — Two projects that will help clean the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal are underway.

Construction has finally started on the long-awaited Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, and state officials Tuesday announced a cleanup will start soon at a contaminated fuel depot overlooking the canal.

The park will be built on an 18,000-square-foot piece of city-owned land where Second Street dead-ends into the canal. The park is not actually made of sponges — the name comes from the future green spot's special powers. Engineered soil will help sop up stormwater that pollutes the canal and plants will absorb and break down toxins.

"The whole area was a swamp once and we wanted to restore some of that permeability,” said Susannah Drake, principal at the landscape architecture firm DLANDstudio, which invented the sponge park.

Workers are now at the site digging out five feet of existing soil, which will be removed and taken to a facility that can handle contaminated materials, Drake said. The stones that now line the end of Second Street will be saved; some will be used in the final project and the city's Department of Transportation will stockpile some for use in other historic areas, Drake said.

The park's metal and concrete elements will be installed over the next 90 days and the greenery will be planted in the spring. When it's complete, visitors will be able to stroll down a metal walkway flanked by "beautiful plants" to the canal's edge, Drake said.

The green spot will also have a canal access point for the Gowanus Dredgers canoe club. That feature will be built by the Lightstone Group, the developer constructing a 700-unit high-rise next to the park.

Drake and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy first conceived of the sponge park idea back in 2008. Drake has spent the past several years cobbling together funding from a variety of agencies and nonprofits for the $1.5 million project.

The Second Street park is part of a larger vision for a "green district" of esplanades, walkways and pocket parks that could one day bloom throughout the Gowanus Canal area, but that will probably take a few decades to become a reality, Drake said.

“I’m hoping that it opens up thinking about the possibilities for green infrastructure for cities across the country,” Drake said. “We really need to be considering our engineering of urban systems more holistically.”

Meanwhile, work is set to start soon on the cleanup of a fuel depot overlooking the canal a few blocks to the north of the sponge park, state officials announced Tuesday.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said work will begin soon on cleaning up the site of the Bayside Fuel Oil Depot Corp. just north of the Union Street bridge on the west side of the canal.

First workers will dismantle the depot, which is no longer in operation, officials said. The site contains "1.5 million gallons of empty, aboveground fuel oil storage tanks, automobile maintenance garages, a parking lot, and equipment storage areas," according to the DEC.

The tanks and other equipment will be removed, as well as "shallow contaminated soil" that will be "disposed of off-site," the DEC said. Next the agency will survey the site in detail and determine what steps need to taken to address contamination there.

The Bayside Fuel Oil Depot Corp. was one of several industrial businesses that once lined the canal and used the waterway to transport goods. The site, between Union, Degraw, and Bond streets, is part of the state's Brownfield Cleanup Program, which aims to clean contaminated properties so they can be redeveloped.

“The proposed redevelopment is still in early planning stages and is subject to change as potential zoning changes occur,” DEC said in announcing the cleanup.

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States and was declared a Superfund site in 2010. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is leading a $506 million multi-year cleanup of the canal that's now in the design phase. When that phase is complete, dredging (the cleanup's first activity) is expected to start in 2017.