Expert Voices: Daniel Walsh, Director of New York City Office of Environmental Remediation

First-of-its-kind Brownfield Cleanup Program marks major milestone

New York City’s manufacturing history and industrial legacy can still be seen today in the existence of brownfields. These are vacant and abandoned lots that get passed over for redevelopment because developers fear the risk of unexpected delays and added costs associated with cleaning up contamination that may have occurred many years -- if not decades -- ago by previous owners. These sites tend to cluster in low-income neighborhoods and continue to blight otherwise vibrant communities throughout the City. Often these are underutilized sites that are located in strategic areas close to public transportation or otherwise well situated; if revitalized, they would have tremendous potential to serve local residents with open space, housing or places to shop or work. 

To address this issue, C40 Chair, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg established the New York City Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) through PlaNYC, the city’s long-term sustainability plan. The BCP is the first city-run cleanup program established in the United States, which usually relies on states to regulate and oversee environmental cleanups. By administering its own program, New York City has dramatically accelerated brownfield cleanup and redevelopment in all five of its boroughs.

Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the program had reached a major milestone in its brief 18-months of operation: the BCP approved its 50th project since it launched as part of PlaNYC in 2011. The announcement was made at a recently cleaned-up site in Brooklyn, where the development plans of race car engine design and consulting firm Ayton Performance will bring this industry to New York City. 

The cleanup and redevelopment of these first 50 properties paves the way for $1.5 billion in new capital investment in construction, adding approximately 4.8 million square feet of new development, including 1.1 million square feet of new retail, commercial, industrial, hospitality and office space and over 950 new units of affordable housing. Collectively, all of this new development is expected to create over 2,000 permanent jobs, 5,100 construction jobs and generate over $730 million in long-term tax revenue for both the City and State of New York. To incentivize owners and developers to enroll in the program, the City offers enrollees environmental liability protection and environmental grants to help offset some of the costs of taking on impaired properties. This support makes brownfield sites more competitive with sites that may not require any environmental cleanup and helps to break the cycle of disinvestment on these long neglected properties. 

Of the projects enrolled in the BCP to date, more than 70 percent are located in low-income communities on sites that have been vacant for an average of more than 16 years. The program takes some of the most blighted properties in our City’s poorest communities and cleans them up, making them safer, and bringing jobs, housing and other amenities where they are needed the most. 

To learn more about New York City’s brownfield programs, click here. To read about the city’s brownfields strategy in PlaNYC, click here.