The sewers of New York City are mythical, with tales of alligator men and giant rats lurking in their depths. But these days the horror stories involve heavy rains that regularly force stormwater runoff to push raw sewage into the city's waterways. Rogers Marvel Architects recently parlayed those overburdened sewers into a pivotal design for a mixed-income, mixed-use housing development on a brownfield site bordering Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Gowanus Canal.

The winning scheme, Gowanus Green, is the brainchild of Rogers Marvel, West 8 urban design and landscape architecture of the Netherlands, and New York City-based Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners. Rogers Marvel project architect Shuji Suzumori believes their plan to improve neighborhood water sources helped the proposal stand out with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “We focused a lot of energy on ways to clean up the canal and the site,” he explains.

The 6-acre site—once home to a gas manufacturing plant—will soon comprise nine buildings containing 774 apartments (70 percent of which will be low-income or affordable senior housing), plus 65,000 square feet of ground-floor cultural, retail, and community facilities. Half of the site will be devoted to public greens. A rain garden, amphitheater, plant nursery, playground, and pedestrian mews are also interwoven with the buildings. The largest outdoor area is a 2-acre canal-front park with a landscaped swale trail running through it. Suzumori says 100 percent of the site's rainwater runoff will be collected and diverted to this trail, which will contain plants to naturally filter contaminants from the water. Any water not absorbed by parks or green roofs will flow cleanly into the canal.

The project team hopes the hefty proportion of green-to-built space will help earn Gowanus Green the new LEED for Neighborhood Development designation. The buildings “are just guests” within the park setting, says principal architect Jonathan Marvel, AIA, and were placed like “deferential chess pieces to frame the greens.” The massive site clean-up offers ample time to hone those details until construction starts in 2010, with completion expected four years later. “This relationship of the buildings to the landscape is really the signature concept,” Marvel says. “If we get this right, then the architecture and construction will fall in place.”