NYC Turns Toxic Assets Into Developer Gold

NYC Turns Toxic Assets Into Developer Gold

Brownfields like these may be seeing a brighter future as part of New York City’s new cleanup program.
Matt Chaban

New York City has at least a thousand brownfield sites scattered across the five boroughs. The number is uncertain, however, because of the stigma attached to even mildly contaminated sites. In the hopes of ridding the city of these underutilized parcels and spurring development in the process, the Bloomberg administration has launched a landmark municipal cleanup program that is the first of its kind in the state.

On August 5, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the new plan at a brownfield site in the Morris Park section of the Bronx. At the press conference, the city signed an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Conservation that gives the city authority over light to moderate cleanups. It is the first site in the program and is slated to hold a seven-story affordable housing complex, called Pelham Parkway Towers.

New York State has had a similar program in place since 2003, and it will continue to oversee the truly toxic, Superfund-caliber cleanups. The state also has tax credits at its disposal that the city does not. Until now, most light to moderate cleanups in the city were done either at the developer’s discretion or not at all.

the proposed pelham parkway towers in the bronx, an affordable housing project, will be one of the program’s first developments. 
COURTESY nyc mayor’s office

“Our new brownfields program will lead to cleanups of long-blighted eyesores that drag down a neighborhood’s property values, image, and safety,” said the mayor. With brownfields in the city accounting for nearly five percent of all land, this is no small task.

The main impediment that brownfields present to development in the city has less to do with contaminants on the site—still an important concern—so much as with the liability they create. And that leads to the reluctance of banks to lend to interested developers. Under the new program, the city will offer developers liability waivers to satisfy prospective lenders. Such waivers, however, will require developers to sign up for the city’s rigorous cleanup requirements, which can cost tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. In June, the city launched a grant program that will offset a portion of that cost.

If this sounds like a giveaway to developers, Daniel Walsh insists it is not. Walsh is the founding director of the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation, which was created in 2008 to oversee brownfields as part of PlaNYC. He said that environmental and development interests need not be pitted against each other. “To the city’s credit, they went for a quality-driven program,” Walsh said. “It’s development without sacrificing environmental protection.”

Since the program began to take shape last year, Walsh said between 35 and 40 groups have expressed interest, including ten in the month since the program was formally launched. Most have been affordable housing developers, but the city expects more sites to come on line as the market rebounds.

Developers, unions, and environmentalists have all expressed excitement, as the brownfield cleanup program will create jobs, taxes, and a sustainable way to clean up hundreds of contaminated sites across the city. “We’re all watching to see where this goes,” said Dan Hendrick, a spokesman for the New York League of Conservation Voters. “There’s really nothing else like this out there, and the potential is just huge.”