News & Opinion » News

Resurrecting the urban wasteland


It took a public shaming from the New York Times before it was released, but state money to fund brownfield cleanups is finally flowing to where it was intended.

Last week Governor Pataki and the leaders of both houses of the state legislature announced a breakthrough that freed $30 million to help with the cleanup of some of the state's worst post-industrial wastelands. And $390,000 of that will be headed to Rochester for three separate local efforts.

But that money almost didn't materialize, thanks to budget-season politics in Albany. The story has its roots in the state's complex laws regulating brownfields --- a shorthand designation for polluted sites that aren't bad enough to make the Environmental Protection Agency Superfund list. Many of these sites are still too contaminated to be safely redeveloped, frequently requiring substantial --- and costly --- cleanup. And that often translates to the loss of jobs in small to mid-sized cities, greater health risks, and the encouragement of sprawling suburban development.

In recent years the state has created programs to clean and turn around these eyesores. But up until 2003, municipalities participating in such programs had to obtain the title to the property that needed cleaning before funds could be released. As local environmental attorney Linda Shaw says, "That's always been difficult."

Shaw, who has substantial experience working on brownfields, explains that cities (or towns, villages, or counties) seeking to take over potential brownfields were often trapped between two financially crushing extremes: either the contaminated site had too much potential commercial value (and therefore commanded too high a price) or the site was too contaminated (and too potentially expensive to clean).

"Rochester's done an incredibly good job [turning over brownfields], but it's difficult," says Shaw. "It's not easy to do."

Then in 2003 the state passed a brownfields law that allocated $15 million a year for cleanups and included a program that circumvented the title dilemma.

"It's exclusively designed to assist municipalities," without requiring municipal ownership, Shaw says. "They can spend money on private property."

But even then, help wasn't quite on the way. Bickering over how to divide the money kept legislative leaders from releasing the funds during the program's first two years. When Pataki added another $15 million to the fund in this year's budget, Senate Republicans moved to block it until the first $30 million was spent. All of this hit the pages of the New York Times on March 17. That Times article also reported that grassroots efforts by groups from mainly poor, urban neighborhoods had pushed a resolution through New York's City Council calling on the state to release the money.

Less than a week later, the governor and both legislative leaders were announcing that they'd signed the memorandum, sending the $30 million to more than 50 projects around the state.

Projects from both the City of Rochester and Monroe County made the list of those receiving funding. The county received $150,000 to conduct an initial study looking for pollution on the site of Renaissance Square; "The area is characterized with 15 potential brownfield sites," read the terse press release from Pataki's press office.

Meanwhile the city received $90,000 for a similar exploratory study --- and the subsequent creation of a plan for redevelopment --- of a nearly 400-acre tract west of the Genesee River in the Lyell Avenue/Lake Avenue/State Street area.

"That's [the city's] next project area and that's probably their most challenging," says Shaw, citing the nature of the pollutants the city's likely to find in abandoned industrial sites there.

The city's economic development corporation is also getting $150,000 to investigate a 30-acre area around the Village Gate complex at North Goodman Street and Anderson Avenue (much of it along a rail corridor). Shaw, who's worked with Village Gate owner Gary Stern on the project, describes it as an actual "poking holes in the ground" investigation of several adjacent properties to see what's there. Depending on what's found, "They want to do more apartments and artists' lofts, etcetera, along the lines that it already is," she says.

Stern, who'd begun developing in the area more than 20 years ago, says he's "very excited" about the possibility of further development in the area.

"It's a great area," he says "It just needs some tender loving care."

Shaw compares the changes in store for Village Gate to a similar makeover of the city's East End. The cleanup there and the transformation that followed went somewhat unnoticed, she says, because it was gradual. But "really, they turned that neighborhood around." (She points to the former car dealership that now houses Spot Coffee as an example of a brownfield given a second life.)

In fact, Shaw has mostly glowing words for the city of Rochester and its brownfield coordinator, Mark Gregor, who couldn't be reached in time for this article.

"The city of Rochester has been really good at utilizing all these programs," under Gregor's watch, she says, ranking among the best in the state --- along with Yonkers --- at redeveloping polluted sites.

"It's good for Rochester to have this money because generally when a site is developed it's good for the rest of the neighborhood," she says.