Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to build on an estimated 7,600 acres of contaminated
land, known as brownfields, will eliminate health hazards that plague poor neighborhoods
and communities of color and create space for desperately needed housing. The
mayor's plan is visionary, courageous and insightful, and the implementation
plan includes provisions that empowers residents and community based organizations
and directs funds where they are most needed.
A Transparent Process
A dozen groups, including New Partners
in Community Revitalization has lobbied the city to create a centralized
office focused on redeveloping city brownfield sites. The mayor included such
an office in his plan, but it now needs the authority, staff and funding to
develop and implement his agenda. Moving forward, the office will also need
to ensure that the projects it assists have emerged from a community planning
effort or have support of the local community. And any project that seeks city
help to develop a brownfield must demonstrate that their projects are consistent
with the city's sustainability goals.
The primary focus of the city's new Office of Environmental Remediation is
to advance the redevelopment of the city's brownfield sites, but it will also
be charged with regulatory oversight. When the same agency that develops a project
also has the responsibility for regulating it, an inherent conflict arises.
To avoid that, the new office will needed to develop policies and procedures
and hire the right personnel to assure a user-friendly program while achieving
Making the Best Use of Funds
The mayor announced that the city will provide $15 million for a public-private
revolving loan fund to finance remediation and related costs. But it is not
clear how the city will get these dollars into specific projects. The city government
should maximize its funds by leveraging private dollars for remediation through
partnerships with community lending institutions such as NY
Metro Brownfields Redevelopment Fund Program, which uses federal and city
funds to credit enhance remediation loans.
The mayor also announced a $10 million investment for an environmental insurance
initiative, which will be important for developers of affordable housing. Because
of the scope of the overall development, the city will be in an excellent position
to negotiate reasonably priced environmental insurance policies (even for small
sites), with few or no exclusions.
A Fight in Albany?
The Bloomberg administration is asking the state to give the city regulatory
authority for cleanup oversight. This could be tough. State enforcement laws
create the liability so it is the state that has the authority to provide liability
relief. Delegating that authority to the city would be unprecedented, so such
a change would likely take a long time. Therefore, the city needs to focus on
getting the state to immediately fix the problems with its Brownfield
Cleanup Program, so that contaminated historic fill sites (sites contaminated
with debris or waste from commercial or industrial processes that was then mixed
with soil to build up areas for development) are no longer excluded. This exlcusion provision
disproportionately affects New York City.
Also on the mayor's to-do-list in Albany is fixing the state's Brownfield
Opportunity Area program. The state government must release the funds promised
for local planning for brownfield sites. These funds have been held up for years
because two agencies, the Department
of State and the Department
of Environmental Conservation, have to sign off on every detail and every
step of an already long and demanding process.
The legislature and the governor understand the need to fix this, and there
seems to be agreement that the state's planning agency, the Department of State,
should be solely responsible for this program. Yet, it is still unclear whether
Albany will act to fix this in the few weeks before the legislative session
Working with Private Property Owners
The mayor has also called for new incentives to encourage private property
owners to participate in the state brownfield planning program.
One way to achieve this is to grant the existing eight percent increase in
brownfield tax credits only to projects that built in a way consistent with
plans that emerge from the state's Brownfield Opportunity Area program. If the
project is not consistent, it would not receive any tax credits. Beyond asking
the state to create incentives, the city should use its own resources to encourage
private property owners to participate in brownfield planning and development
and to take a strong role in improving these once blighted areas of our city.
Jody Kass and Mathy Stanislaus are co-directors of New Partners for Community
Revitalization, a NYC-based nonprofit working to revitalize low and moderate
income neighborhoods through brownfields reclamation.
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