PlaNYC: Brownfields

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We see them everywhere: the fenced-off vacant lots filled with garbage and rubble that everyone wishes could be a park, or a new supermarket.  In reality, however, brownfield cleanup is much more complicated than “The Vacant Lot” episode of Hey Arnold! made it out to be.  Brownfields are unused plots of land that were formerly industrial or commercial sites.  This means there is usually contamination from hazardous materials or waste.

There are thousands of these vacant properties in New York City, which gives the city a wonderful opportunity to revitalize the area and improve these urban blights.

[You can track the year-long process of a brownfield-remediation project in our Atlas Lab section, via Kaja Kühl’s project Field Lab.]

PlaNYC’s third section outlines goals and programs to motivate the transformation of brownfields.  The entire process is currently muddled and confusing for landowners, developers, and the city alike.  PlaNYC hopes to ease brownfield cleanup and facilitate development.  Brownfields could really embody the message of PlaNYC: sustainable, green development that uplifts the community and improves the neighborhood.


Initiative 1: Increase participation in the NYC Brownfield Cleanup Program by partnering with lenders and insurers

The NYC Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) was established by the 2007 Plan, and oversees cleanups for the low- to moderately-contaminated properties.  It tries to use a “streamlined and predictable process” and also gives landowners and developers liability protection for brownfield sites enrolled in the program.  With this initiative, New York State’s cleanup standards have been adopted and all projects will be overseen by a team of city scientists and engineers.  The risk for developers and owners will be minimized in all ways possible in order to spark growth and progress.  There will also be programs to encourage lending and financing for those seeking redevelopment.  Further, the BCP will work with insurance companies and financing institutions defending the client.  Another program called the Brownfield Incentive Grant program (BIG) funds investigations and cleanups to make brownfields more competitive in the real estate market.  The BIG program will allow grants to be used for liability insurance, easing the burden of developers.  Overall, the BIG program and the BCP is committed to helping those wanted to start brownfield development and demonstrates this by partnering with insurance companies and financial institutions.


Initiative 2: Increase the capacity of small businesses and small- and mid-size developers to conduct brownfield cleanup and redevelopment

Small- and mid-sized developers do not have the expertise needed for brownfield remediation.  This initiative establishes an environmental expert referral program for free and for the public good.  It will provide advice and free consultations


Initiative 3:Enable the identification, cleanup, and redevelopment of brownfields

Brownfields differ at each site; they are not projects that can be mass-produced.  The NYC BCP will establish flexible timelines that allow for the appropriate customization of brownfield development.  For example, owners can now cleanup the property before putting it up for sale.  Also now allowed, is the development of a cleanup plan, and then postpone action until a potential buyer has been identified.  This permits money to be better spent and time put to better use.  In addition to more flexible guidelines, a real estate search engine, SPEED, will be improved to cater to developers needs.  They will have access to data, historical maps and information, and aerial maps of more than 3,000 brownfield properties.  These new programs are aimed to be open and community-guided, so affected residents understand the changes in their neighborhood.  A new establishment, the Environmental Project Information Center (EPIC) will help those in this complex process.  It is another online tool that will ease the navigation and burden on interested parties.  The City will also partner with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve available technology.

Initiative 4: Build upon existing state and federal collaborations to improve the City’s brownfield programs

Working further with the State and Federal government will help improve incentives for landowners and developers.  Liability protection for interested parties is of utmost importance, as that is one of the largest deterrents.  A pilot program will also be established to waive part of an environment lien on a property if the developer will work with NYC BCP.


Initiative 5: Study the economic value of brownfield redevelopment in New York City

While brownfields are largely understood to spur economic growth in a neighborhood, very few focused studies have been done to quantitatively assess the impact brownfield development.  The City will collect relevant data concerning brownfield redevelopment to rigorously evaluate brownfield value in terms of job creation, revenue income, and real estate opportunity.


Initiative 6: Leverage the NYC BCP to establish funding and other incentives for cleanup and redevelopment

The BCP’s projects in brownfield cleanup have had numerous positive results for the City, like the creation of jobs and affordable housing.  Eventually, however, there is potential to combine the BCP’s incentives with other incentives from city programs.  For example, the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation worked with the BCP to establish a low-interest loan program for Bronx brownfield cleanups.  Partnerships like this will better cater to each individual site and neighborhood. BCP will try to work with other financial institutions to develop an informal counseling program, where interested parties can get help and navigate through the financial barriers.


Initiative 7: Support community-led planning efforts

A new program will be established to involve the community in brownfield development—the NYC Community Brownfield Planning District (CBPD) Program.  This will designate 25 CBPDs, which are areas in the city that have clusters of brownfields with active Community Based Organizations (CBOs) interested in their development.  This way, the redevelopment of a brownfield will be directly linked to the community’s interest.  The CBDP will be able to guide the CBOs through the entire process.  They will also help the expansion of the State’s Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) Program.


Initiative 8: Support local and area-wide community brownfield planning efforts

In continuation of working with the CBOs and BOA programs, a helpful report of management practices will be published.  The City will also provide technical assistance grant so these groups can afford consulting services specifically for brownfield cleanup.  Educational programs will be provided through the NYC Brownfield Partnership and brownfield redevelopment information will be more accessible.  Much of this information will be available online, and the City will work with the New York Department of State to create a community portal for brownfield planning.


Initiative 9: Increase the transparency and accessibility of brownfield cleanup plans

New York City is constantly changing, and this can at times make it difficult for residents to follow developments in their own communities.  It should be easy to be informed about the cleanup work being performed in their neighborhoods.  Under the NYC BCP regulations, brownfield cleanup plans must go through a period of public comment.  To make this more accessible to residents, there will be an online document repository for the public.  In the past these documents are loaded with technical jargon, which is not accessible to the public.  This frustrating barrier will be eliminated by communicated more clearly to the public.  In addition, there will also be a permanent online library of brownfield educational videos and information.


Initiative 10: Promote green remediation in the NYC Brownfield Cleanup Program

Each cleanup plan is required to include a Sustainability Statement.  This Statement will give an opportunity to developers to really consider how to make green choices and document green remedial measures incorporated into the cleanup process.  While it will not bind or limit developers, it establishes a commitment to green actions.  There will also be grants to fund green audits, and incentives for those employing sustainable practices.


Initiative 11: Promote green space on remediated brownfield properties

Brownfields have so much potential, they can turn into a community center or a hotel, but they can also turn into public green spaces.  The New York City Pocket Parks Program will convert small brownfields into parkland.  There is a pilot program in the making that will create three pocket parks from brownfields.


The City sees brownfields for their incredible potential to create jobs, public space, and neighborhood enrichment.  The programs established in this section of PlaNYC work to protect public health and the environment while at the same time involving residents in the process.