By Steve Dwyer
New York City’s ambitious brownfield cleanup program is lapping the efforts of many states, demonstrating the aggressive stance and urgency to return properties back to productive reuse—benefits seen in everything from new tax generation, civic pride and environmental vigilance.
The Voluntary Cleanup Program, created in 2009 to fill the gaps in a state program for cleaning up contaminated land, was designed to address tainted acreage that had been ineligible for tax credits under the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. Nine years later, it has succeeded very well in achieving that mission.
The City program is outpacing the entire state program, according to a new report. Moreover, the city program is outpacing those sponsored by other states. According to a report released in July by the Furman Center at New York University, the city program has enrolled an impressive number of sites—560 since 2009—compared with statewide programs that started earlier, like New York’s 713 since 2003, or Illinois’ 799 since 1994. The biggest year in the city so far was 2015 when 153 applications were made; in 2017, there were 68.
You know the expression “a New York minute” very well. The Furman report revealed that it took 20.81 months for the average city site to be remediated compared with 57.96 months for the state sites—a gap that likely reflects the heavier contamination of the state sites, but also epitomizes the efficiencies seen in the way the city approves applications.
What remains unclear is what impact the remediations are having on the neighborhoods and people nearby. Furman notes that the city’s remediation sites are heavily concentrated in areas like Greenpoint that have seen pronounced gentrification.
Whether the remediations helped foster rising neighborhood incomes, or merely occurred at the same time—as well as whether those changes benefited incumbent residents or bumped them out—is not answerable with available data. Almost none of the remediated city sites were intended to return to industrial use: In the vast majority of cases, the land’s new lease on life was residential.
An even bigger question is whether there is more land out there that needs remediating. The Furman report notes that the city’s sites are heavily concentrated in areas that have been rezoned, meaning there might be untapped potential elsewhere on the map.