Gowanus housing represents challenge and hope

In NYC’s own version of a Powerball lottery, more than 56,000 applicants are vying for 86 affordable apartments under construction in Brooklyn. The catch? The building overlooks a horribly polluted Superfund site.

The demand for the affordable spots in the Lighthouse Group’s luxury high-rise on the banks of the Gowanus Canal illustrates just how much affordable housing trumps everything else in NYC, particularly in neighborhoods that haven’t yet been discovered.

But it also shows just how important the cleanup of the Gowanus is. The neighborhood, once known for manufacturing, warehouses and artists’ studios, is changing rapidly. Hundreds of housing units are under construction — and there are plans for many more. Soon, more people will live on the canal’s banks, and more children will play in nearby parks and attend nearby schools.

The cleanup of the Gowanus, however, has been mired in delays. Most recently, the debate is about where to put retention tanks that would reduce the sewer overflow into the canal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to put the tanks under a public swimming pool, which would require state involvement in cleanup. The city Department of Environmental Protection wants private sites that would require buying out property owners.

The EPA has final say — and a decision must come soon. This is just a piece of a $506 million federal cleanup. City officials say they’re doing their part by adding green infrastructure, including curbside gardens, and they’ll start to build high-level storm sewers this spring.

Meanwhile, there’s clearly a need for more affordable housing. The plans are there, but polluted land and existing industrial buildings make every step more complex.

The Gowanus cleanup is tremendously complicated, with layers of environmental damage and bureaucracy. Private developers and city, state and federal officials must make sure the cleanup is done right — without further delay. The polluted canal and land around it are critical to NYC’s future. To those who desperately want to win this lottery, the plan represents new housing and economic opportunity.