David J. Freeman: A "Bridge Builder" Whose Vision Came to Fruition
By Steve Dwyer
About 15 years ago, we saw the birth of a concept whose time had come: The launch of a New York City-based non-profit organization to advocate for best practices and to serve as a clearinghouse of information regarding brownfield development in New York City.
The germ of the vision started with a basic yet essential task of fostering information sharing around brownfields redevelopment occurring in the City. The vision evolved to become many things to many practitioners—including serving as a mechanism to enhance dialogue between public and private entities…and erase the systemic barriers that often undermine results.
Any vision starts with visionaries, and two of them were Dr. Daniel Walsh and David J. Freeman, the latter recently named the 2021 recipient of New York City Brownfield Partnership’s Distinguished Service Award. (Dr. Walsh was the recipient in a prior year).
The Award promotes excellence in brownfield redevelopment each year by honoring an individual who has made a significant impact on this industry in New York City and beyond.
Freeman, a Director in the Environmental Group of Gibbons P.C., is a founding NYCBP Board member and has been responsible for much of the organization’s structure and success.
Serving as NYCBP Board President during a critical period of the organization’s existence, Freeman helped pave the way for the Partnership’s current success, as he lent his voice to multiple committees and chaired the Legislative/Policy Committee, which has maintained a close and interactive watch over the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program.
Freeman has more than 35 years of experience representing buyers, sellers, and developers of contaminated properties, as well as both plaintiffs and defendants in Superfund and other litigation regarding the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. He is a frequent author and speaker on environmental law topics and is the recipient of a 2012 Burton Award as “an outstanding law firm author.”
He was involved with the formation of the New York State Bar Association Environmental & Energy Law Section’s Future of Federal Environmental Policy Task Force—and his extensive professional and pro bono activities include service far and wide. In fact, from a pro bono service standpoint, Freeman put his stamp on it within the Partnership’s portfolio by establishing the Partnership’s Pro Bono Referral and Pro Bone Counseling services.
These days, he continues to serve the NYCBP as an Emeritus Board Member and participant in the Redevelopment Roundtables, and remains active in advising on regulatory policy.
“Those of us who work with David at Gibbons are delighted he is being recognized for his career-long achievements in the areas of environmental law and brownfield redevelopment in New York City,” said Camille V. Otero, Chair of the firm’s Environmental Group. “His invaluable contributions to our New York based environmental practice and clients further demonstrate his commitment to excellence.”
In a recent phone conversation, Freeman recalled the inception of the Partnership, and how the organization took shape in a challenging environment. “[Dr.] Dan Walsh recognized who was active on the city and state levels. I think there was a shared sense that the City needed to better capitalize on the [New York state brownfield program, established in 2003] and adapt it to fit City needs. There was a great deal of need for change: Promoting excellence in brownfield redevelopment by honoring successful brownfield projects, supporting education and training of industry professionals, workers and students, and also fostering collaborative relationships among developers, property owners, government agencies and community groups.”
Read on for a recent conversation with David Freeman on various aspects of the Partnership and its evolutionary upward trajectory over the past 15 years.
Q: Talk about the inception of the Partnership and how it came to be—the start of a major movement?
A: I want to be modest about my role. I was there from the start, but much credit must go to Dan Walsh, who had a very keen vision—identifying the organization to be a ‘bridge’ that links the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation (OER) to the private sector. There was a great need for change regarding brownfield redevelopment. While I don’t want to diminish my role, it’s essential to credit to Dan in establishing this link between the private side and the OER. The common thread that defines the Partnership’s charter purpose is establishing common ground [among stakeholders] for the remediation of contaminated properties, and return them to productive use.
Q: What were some other—let’s call them—ancillary value-added components of the Partnership’s service portfolio?
A: We were bent on offering pro bono services, and this vision dovetailed to include the formulation of the internship program, scholarships and much more. Pro bono work, internships and scholarships demonstrated that the Partnership could serve as an ‘ambassador’ within the context of brownfields. We strived to be more community-minded and continue to cultivate effective, results-driven working relationships between the private and public sectors—both have interests that are aligned but certainly not identical.
Q: It seems like the Partnership had—and has—a great deal of bandwidth in what it can provide to brownfield stakeholders: has it been top of mind to stay keep focused on keeping the organization’s identity and purpose consistent?
A: The important thing to remember is that [brownfield] deals are being executed independently of the Partnership—the organization never ‘does deals,’ but is instrumental in providing tools and information. We spread knowledge and branched out—we became active with the New York State Bar Association and began to discuss the kinds of amendments to the law that could facilitate the development aspects, integrating the Governor’s office, State DEC and City into the mix. Dan Walsh was very anxious to get OER up and running, to make it an independent entity. Eventually the Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCP) was established with a memorandum of understanding between OER and DEC that the OER would function independently. This memorandum was critical to getting work done.
Q: What were some niche brownfield development areas in which the Partnership stepped in to facilitate, to champion?
A: Advocating for the renewal of disadvantaged communities is one. These communities lack leverage to effect change and achieve results on their own. It’s vital we educate and offer outreach so communities can get involved and be empowered. We started to play an important role in helping educate constituencies about the BCP functionality and how it benefits them—and this does not happen automatically. I also want to shine a light on the role of the BABA awards: the Big Apple Brownfield Awards. It has been an essential vehicle serving as a ‘recognition platform’ for outstanding brownfield redevelopment programs.
Q: Can you talk about the evolution of the Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) initiative and how it matured over time to become more impactful?
A: Pertaining to neighborhood revitalization and outreach to communities, roundtables helped fuel the BOA. You have to remember that the BOA once existed on paper only; thus we had to be aggressive to push the State legislature to more concretely reward [communities]. The BOA was a part of a compromise when the Brownfield Cleanup Act was ratified. Over time, BOA moved from being a less active component to one that’s become far more important to the BCP’s mandate.
And one trend we’ve seen is a sharp focus on disadvantaged communities over the past couple years. One specific niche example has been advocating for communities of color who have been negatively affected by pollution in their backyards. This sparked a movement that was not just environmental, but encompassed economic and social justice elements, to effect change. It changed how real estate is developed in the City.
Q: What is one major task on the Partnership’s front burner in 2021?
A: We have a big hurdle in 2022 as the State brownfield tax credit provisions need to be extended by the State legislature by end of 2022. However, while it might seem like there’s time, there is much work to be done well in advance of that date [to ensure its renewal]. The intention is to not put money back into developer’s pockets, but to make the tax credit provision an agent of change for disadvantaged communities, to reap economic, environmental and social benefits. There’s a compelling need to target where tax credit distribution need is greatest. The clock is ticking.
Q: What’s ahead to continue to make inroads and effect change with the Partnership?
A: We must continue as an information resource. There are a host of complicated topics and multiple jurisdictions [OER, DEC, Dept. of Buildings, etc.] to engage with on many issues. We are eager to bring developers to the table—new ones who have interest in sustainable development. That’s very high on the list. I see it as vital to bring people together on issues where they don’t—or won’t—magically come together [to discuss]. There are contentious issues to smooth over and establish a dialogue.
People listen to the Partnership because we are the ones in the trenches…and have established credibility as an organization that objectively represents multiple constituencies in the brownfield community.