Ninth story in an occasional series on the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.
NEW YORK -- The city this summer enthusiastically rolled out what its promoters say is the nation's only municipally led brownfield cleanup program.
But few developers have jumped to participate in the effort to reclaim abandoned industrial and commercial property.
Daniel Walsh, who directs the city's new Office of Environmental Remediation (OER), isn't fretting about the program's slow start, saying it is only natural that a pioneering effort would require upfront time and work.
"It takes a real will," he said. "Building an office and creating this infrastructure is not easy ... but ultimately somebody has got to do it first."
OER's early brownfield candidates include a vacant lot in the South Bronx slated to become an ecofriendly affordable housing complex and a section of abandoned properties in Harlem, including an old church. The brownfield program focuses on properties considered too dirty to attract bank financing but not polluted enough to attract federal- or state-led cleanups.
Eventually, the office's workload could get very heavy. Depending on how one defines "brownfield," OER estimates the city's five boroughs are home to 1,500 to 2,000 tracts that will require environmental investigations and remediation before new development can proceed. All told, about 7,000 acres are believed up for redevelopment once cleanup is completed -- roughly 5 percent of all New York City property.
"There were a lot of contaminated sites that just were falling through the cracks in New York City because they just didn't rise to the level of contamination that actually were eligible for the state-run brownfield program," said Dawn Philip, an attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and a brownfields expert.
How did New York City get so many problem properties? There was a time when developers moved contaminated soil from one neighborhood to another to build up low-lying lots for building projects. And there were once many small manufacturers that used vacant lots as dumps. Metal-plating shops, factories and tanneries were big pollution sources. So were the dry cleaners.
Brownfields are concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. That these contaminated sites have gone untouched for decades has fueled resentment among communities who perceive bias in seeming government disinterest.
"People in these communities where these brownfields are located, they were complaining that they have all of these abandoned parcels of land in their neighborhood that can be used for green space or open space, et cetera," Philip said.
State provides template
The city modeled its brownfield program after the state's cleanup initiative, a point that helped win over Albany regulators during the two years it took to set up OER and design a game plan.
New York City agreed to focus on lots that likely would not get much interest from New York state.
Properties proved or believed to be only lightly contaminated qualify for the program. More polluted tracts are left to the state to tackle.
Much like in the state program, the city requires interested developers to contact the brownfield office and announce their intent to register a site for redevelopment.
After preliminary plans are agreed to and a site investigation conducted, the city and developer determine exactly what the problem is.
Developers can work back and forth with OER for developing a game plan, and can even lean on the more than a dozen scientists and engineers employed there to help with the investigation and remediation plan.
The next step is to register a project, whereby the city frees the developer of legal liabilities as it moves to carry out the work, so long as the developer sticks to the agreed-upon program and reports progress regularly to OER.
Under the memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that OER has signed with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), state authorities agreed, in principle, to trust the city to manage things and will not take legal action against the developer as well. State officials caution that they do not ultimately give up their rights to step in and take charge, but they are unlikely to so long as a project remains under OER oversight.
"In the MOU generally we say since they go through the city program and it's mirrored after ours we wouldn't have much interest in bringing enforcement, but we don't give up that right to," said Dale Desnoyers, an official working on brownfield cleanups at DEC.
"People should be generally comfortable that if they've satisfied the city they've also satisfied the state requirements as they are similar," he said.
OER's Walsh, who also ran the state's brownfield program for a time, says the MOU and maintaining ties to the state are key to winning over developer confidence. Companies interested in redeveloping a site usually cannot get financing for suspected brownfields unless they can prove to the bank that they are registered in some kind of government program. OER ties to Albany increase the chances of theirs getting the seal of approval.
"Ultimately developers are looking for predictability," Walsh said. "There's risk in taking these sites on, that's why often they are not taken on."
Albany's system boasts one of the most generous incentives in the nation -- lucrative tax credits that developers can apply not only to cleanup but also to any new construction that occurs post-remediation.
New York City's program also includes a financial incentive: OER's Brownfield Incentive Grant. But the grant can only be applied to site investigation and cleanup and amounts to a benefit in the range of $6,000 to $100,000 depending on project size, compared to millions of dollars developers can rake in under the state's program.
State budget woes, red tape
But New York state's budget woes have pushed lawmakers to scale back on their tax incentives, with many of the payouts deferred for years after a project is finished. Revisions to the state brownfields law, coupled with the economic downturn, has slowed progress. Recent staff cuts at DEC are also starting to hurt.
Aside from the difficulty with getting approval, developers complain of a burdensome bureaucracy and reams of paperwork that they have to get through under the state program.
Because the city's program deals with sites that are less seriously contaminated, the bureaucracy is similarly streamlined, significantly cutting back on turnaround time.
"To apply for the state program is very time-consuming," said Rachel Ataman, a brownfield redevelopment consultant and vice president of technical services at Hydro Tech Environmental Corp. "I don't think my clients are really interested in applying for the state program."
Ataman says the city process, by comparison, is "wonderful, very streamlined." She said Albany's program is still very attractive because of the generous credits but the high bar set for entry keeps most projects out.
The Aug. 5 announcement of the start of the nation's first municipal brownfield program came and went with little fanfare and little press coverage, and the rollout has proved slow. Even though there are up to 2,000 potentially eligible parcels of land, four months after launch, no projects have been officially entered into the program yet, though Walsh expects five enrollment applications to be finalized in the next couple of weeks. Eight to 10 more are in the pipeline and should start early next year.
"I don't even have one that's formally enrolled at this point," said Micheal Burke, a consultant at Langan Engineering and Environmental Services who is helping a client on a project on West 125th Street in Harlem. "We're probably going to enroll in December but it's hard to say."
Ataman said the slow initial progress is understandable.
"It takes time," she said. "The three programs that we're working on, hopefully I'll be able to launch probably two of them this month as I'm finalizing the remedial action plan for them, but it's not as easy as you could sign up and you're in. You have to do a very extensive investigation of the property to make sure that you're going to clean it."
OER is working hard to advertise their services, to get the ball rolling and prove to the more disadvantaged parts of this city that the development that has flourished here over the years is finally coming to their doorsteps.
"It just launched, and we're very active in just the outreach, letting people know that we exist, here's our philosophy, the way it runs," Walsh said. "I'm getting out and speaking two to three times a week."
Experts say they are confident other developers will rush in once the opportunity is fully appreciated. Philip at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest says opportunities are almost endless.
"New York City is one big brownfield," she said. "The lack of clean, cheap land in this city is kind of amazing. ... There's just not a lot of open space, and there's not a lot of clean open space."
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