By all accounts, the Gowanus Canal was a clean waterway when it was built in 1849. But the industry that it supported, and the combined wet weather and sewage overflows that emptied into it at 10 bank-side locations, made it, to put it lightly, dirtier. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the canal a Superfund site.
Just a year prior, in 2009, developer Toll Brothers Inc. initiated a zoning change to the canal’s waterfront to construct a residential complex with just under 500 units—the first of its kind along the canal. But given the less than appealing label given to the waterway by the EPA in 2010, Toll Brothers dropped their plans. Instead, the developer Lightstone stepped in to construct the waterfront’s first residential complex. They predicted a changing and improved perception of the canal, following cleanup efforts in line with the EPA’s three-part $500 million plan, approved in 2013, to improve the water’s health.
Today, Lightstone’s project has resulted in 365 Bond, a 430-unit residential building, paired with a sister site next door, 363 Bond, which will be host 270 units of its own (set for completion next spring 2017). Since April, 365 Bond has been leasing its studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom apartments, along with a handful of townhouses. To date, it is 35 percent leased. On Monday, we stood on the roof of the building overlooking the canal. Behind us were a smattering of cabanas with daybeds and clusters of barbecues, and, in the distance, Whole Foods Gowanus loomed large. Next to us was Scott Avram, Senior Vice President of Development with Lightstone.
“One hundred people per week cycle through the leasing office,” Avram told us. Just prior to that, he and Miles Hilder, with 365 Bond’s PR firm Edelman, had whisked us through the “amenities package” in the building, which included not only the amenities themselves—a game room with a ping pong and pool table, an arcade, darts, a big open kitchen, a dining and lounge area, which hosted a handful of residents working on laptops, and, finally, a large gym, yoga studio, and cycling center, the majority of which looked onto the public esplanade along the canal, built by Lightstone. Out a door and across the hallway was a children’s play area: it was carpeted, its walls pictured a safari, little people work tables were scattered throughout, along with a tipi and a bunch of toys, and a bathroom with a changing table was en suite. Finally, a tv was mounted on the wall. When we walked in, a woman in a white bridal gown was attacking a man with a bouquet of flowers on a broadcast of the Jerry Springer Show.
“A lot of people have liked the programming of the amenties,” said Avram. Collectively, all those amenities spaces are called “Club Bond.” Avram continued, “A lot of [buildings] have amenity spaces but people don’t know what do do with them,” whereas 365 Bond has a “Lifestyle Director,” who previously worked as the concierge at a private club. She could schedule things for people to do in them. “The dining room, and lounge club room, and game room, having them programmed and creating a sense of community, where people can meet each other in a non-formal setting, with wine tastings and game night, and with fun activities where people can get together,” Avram explained, had been quite appealing to tenants, giving them a reason to use all that common square footage that is at their disposal. “The sun deck,” Avram continued, “is packed every weekend.”
Which, incidentally, is where we were standing. Below us, a few people were milling about the canal’s new esplanade, which will eventually stretch along most of the waterfront. For now, it ends abruptly, leading to nowhere, at the edge of the development. The murky water on the other side of the esplanade railing inched forward ever so slowly.
“It’s a lot less dirty, and it doesn’t smell,” Avram said, when I brought up the topic. “The water is moving, whereas it was stagnant before.” The movement is a result of a pump that had been more recently activated, and that pushes 250 million gallons of fresh water into the canal every day, Avram explained. That, in turn, pushes the canal’s combined raw and wet weather sewage water downstream and, eventually, into a treatment center. One of the sewage system’s dumping points was a few hundred feet away, near the Carroll Street Bridge. Was that a problem, I wondered?
“That was part of old problem with the combined sewer system,” Avram told me. “That would go into the canal, but now we’ve implemented separate sewer systems, so we don’t have that problem,” he summarized, which is something I had not previously heard. “Plus, with bioswells, it limits the amount of water that floods the sewer system. Collectively, all these things result in better water quality of the canal.” But, he concluded, “It’s ongoing, the separation of these systems, it’s a continued process.”
On the other side of the roof, looking West toward Carroll Gardens, I spotted two more buildings under construction, large condos covered in a wide range of colors and modern materials that stuck out from the sandstones and brick facades around it like sore thumbs—or, at least, thumbs with kid bandages on them. Avram explained how at 365 Bond, the intent of the architecture and design was to incorporate the changing elevations and materials of the buildings and neighborhoods surrounding the development, so that, as much as possible, these nearly 700 units, the first residential building along the canal, could be seamlessly incorporated into it. “It drops down and comes back up and it is meant to blend as you move this way,” Avram explained as we looked at men working on the condos across the street.
I asked if there had been much community opposition to the building, as plans moved along? “There is a very small local community organization that was very loud, but in general the community board was in favor of it and Mayor de Blasio is a big supporter of the project,” Avram responded, “It was generally accepted—anyone who has a vision for growth around the canal… this is part of it.”
Inside, we took a look at units. As we walked, Avram asked if we were aware of The Gowanus Gowilla—a “community paper” published by 365 Bond. “We’ve done two of them and printed 30 thousand copies,” he said. “We do a lot of the writing,” Avram said when asked who makes it. Inside of its pages, there is a guide to Gowanus restaurants, and a bunch of articles about how the old industrial neighborhood is a well-suited host to a “vibrant and active waterway” and artists taking up spaces in old cavernous buildings. In case you’re wondering, a Gowilla is, of course, a gorilla-like sea monster born of the Canal’s mysterious waters.
Avram showed us a couple of one bedrooms (one decorated with a golden wheeled skateboard and a large statue of black herd animal, probably a sheep), studios, two bedrooms, and a townhouse, each with white oak wide plank floors, galley or open-floor kitchens, Italian cabinet doors equipped with “slow motion closure” mechanisms, and Bosch appliances. Studios begin in the mid $2,000 range and move upward. Townhouses begin in the mid $7,000 range. To get into any of the units, you could install an app, said Avram, and then flash your phone in front of the lock. It was the next generation keyless entry.
Before we left, we paused in the lobby. A huge map, copied and enlarged from a library archive, showed the Gowanus canal and the country surrounding it as it appeared in 1879. On the top right corner was the waterway, not yet its fully-realized self. “All farm country, you can see, extended all around the canal, all the way up to the top—it was just country,” Avram said, marveling.
There was indeed lots and lots of farmland where Brooklyn as we know it—and programmed amenities, factories converted into artists spaces, Whole Foods, and an esplanade—now stands. “There’s a little key up there,” Avram pointed out, which clues us into what all those unrecognizable and quaint details of the map, and of the same ground we currently stood on, were. They were really happy when they found the map, said Avram. “We thought it was really cool to see.”
All images by Jane Bruce