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The Superfund Discount

The Gowanus Canal: Toxic wasteland or real-estate hot spot?

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Two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency made it official: The Gowanus Canal is very, very foul. In its new study of the 1.8-mile Brooklyn waterway, declared a Superfund site last year, the Feds called it “one of the most contaminated water bodies in the nation,” laced with carcinogens, runoff, and sewage. Infrastructure work has made it less stinky than it was, but a Maui beachfront it is not.

Which means the $3 million sale of a new house on Bond Street, one block from the canal, is big news. The price is a neighborhood record, by far, and the buyer, Dr. Idan Sharon, is confident that he’s made a good call: “People said, ‘Are you crazy?’ And I said, ‘Listen, go see the place.’ ” The house itself is definitely one-of-a-kind: 25 feet wide, sustainably built, with five stories (including a rental unit), a three-car garage, and a heated pool. “If this was in Manhattan, it’d be three times, four times the price,” Sharon says. Peggy Aguayo, whose firm handled the sale, admits that “I had my doubts. The only houses being sold at that price were in prime locations.” They had a contract within two months.

Yes, there’s a little Gowanus boom going on, driven by the usual proximity and culture. Artists have been settling here for some years, just as they did in the boho days of Tribeca and Williamsburg, and now they’re being followed by investors and a notable number of doctors. (Useful neighbors to have, if you make contact with the canal water.) Concert venues, galleries, and bars earned the neighborhood a nod last year in The Wall Street Journal as “the city’s unlikeliest cultural hot spot.” The area is cradled at the nexus of Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Carroll Gardens, at a far more accessible price. Michel Cohen, a pediatrician, bought and renovated a house on Carroll Street about two years ago, intending to rent it out, but decided to move in instead. It reminds him, he says, of the Tribeca he knew twenty years ago—“like a little village,” says Cohen.

Some settlers are also oddly fond of the canal itself. “As contaminated as it is, [it] represents nature,” says architect David Briggs, co-founder of the community group Gowanus by Design. “You can see the sky, you can see across neighborhoods, there’s wildlife.” Then there’s the real estate: architecturally heterogeneous and sometimes nonconformist, and definitely cheaper than nearby housing. The median price for a house in Gowanus is $535,000, per Trulia.com; Park Slope’s median is $997,000. (Corcoran’s Robert Herskovitz, who’s marketing a Carroll Street property, says traffic to his open houses has been brisk.)

Local opinion holds that after the cleanup, which starts in 2015 and should take about a decade, prices will probably head upward. “In a way, I think [Superfund designation] is a good thing,” says Cohen. Fear of EPA findings, then the recession, kept away big construction projects for years. Instead, smaller, more mindful change is beginning, successfully. As one poster on the online forum YouBeMom.com put it, “My neighbor’s house just sold for $1.6 million, so yeah … I’m good with that.” And then: “It’s being cleaned up and developed, finally. Why is that so bad?”


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