Growing Gowanus

By and    Published May 23, 2011

BROOKLYN – Between two upscale, gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn – Park Slope and Carroll Gardens – is Gowanus, an area left behind with its abandoned warehouses, “For Rent” signs and a toxic, murky canal that federal authorities consider one of the most polluted in the nation.

That’s all changing. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site, which is set for a clean up over the next decade. In 2012, Whole Foods supermarket will open a store on Third Avenue, on what is currently a fenced-in, empty lot. Real estate activity, new businesses and a growing music and art scene are all transforming this once-predominantly Italian community into something new – a few hipsters are already living in houseboats on the canal.

“It’s a situation of a large, obsolete manufacturing zone that is slowly being reimagined,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, an organization that advocates for and preserves the historic value of neighborhoods undergoing change.

Younger Population

Part of this new change in Gowanus has come as a response to high housing costs in Manhattan and rising prices in gentrified area of Brooklyn. Younger residents, particularly those in the art and music communities, have slowly moved into the neighborhood over the past few years, Bankoff said. According to the American Community Survey, 33 percent of Gowanus’ population is 25 to 34 years old – up from 27 percent in 2000 – representing an increase of nearly 1,000 people.

Angelo Bruno, 65, has lived in Gowanus all his life. He remembers the days when now-upscale Fifth Avenue was what he called a “no fly zone,” and Third Avenue was too dangerous to walk alone. He bought his home on Carroll Street and Third in Gowanus in 1974 for just $25,000. “You can never predict real estate…But I knew, I had the sense, that when Seventh Avenue filled up and then Fifth Avenue [Park Slope] filled up, that this was the next place to go,” Bruno said.

Bruno opened an Asian Fusion restaurant called Michael & Pings eight months ago on Third Avenue and Eight Street. Several other businesses – Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Whisky Tango Foxtrot – a pie shop and lounge, are among his new neighbors.

Five block away, construction is about to begin on the 50,000-square-feet Whole Foods. Michael Sinatra, a spokesman for Whole Foods, said the company made a commitment to help clean the Superfund site.  The store also will develop an outdoor space for leisure and a 20,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse – a contrast to the graffiti and trash that currently take up the space.

The ‘Next Tribeca’

All of these factors – the businesses, the real estate push, the newcomers and the clean up – are pointing to a new and more expensive Gowanus. “I will lay down dollars that real estate prices are going to go up more than I will lay down dollars that the sun will go up tomorrow,” Bankoff said, referring to the general real estate picture in the city. Gowanus is especially on the rise as the median sales price in 2000 was $85,000 for a home, according to Trulia.com and today is above $800,000. This is almost $300,000 higher than the median for the rest of Brooklyn.

Richard Rebillino, who owns several Gowanus properties through his company R&R Realty, said he would buy more properties in the area if the opportunity came his way.

“We feel this area will become the next Tribeca,” Rebillino said. Rebillino has helped many Brooklyn artists move to Gowanus to open studios and art spaces. There are growing pains s the neighborhood carves out a new identity: a dance club on Third Avenue Gowanus failed, and turned into rock and jazz live music venue.

Despite real estate efforts to push Gowanus to essentially become a part of Park Slope, Bankoff believes that Gowanus will retain its own identity. He notes the area shares similar characteristics to Dumbo, Soho and the Meat Packing District, which all began as industrial neighborhoods and became artist hubs. The reasons people move to Park Slope, he said, are for the school districts, the park, the brownstones and the community.

The reasons people will move to Gowanus, he said, will be something entirely different.

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