NEW YORK—Vacant lots punctuate the city's streets. Some of them, known as “brownfields,” remain barren and underutilized because environmental contamination would make development too complicated. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn estimates that across the five boroughs they cover more than 7,000 acres.
On Monday, the city broke ground on a brownfield cleanup at 456 Grand St., in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The cleanup is part of the first municipally run brownfield reclamation program in the nation.
The city provides incentives to developers for undertaking the costly venture. A project could be awarded anywhere from $60,000 to $140,000. More importantly, says Quinn, the city relieves the developer of any liability should future problems arise related to contamination. With these incentives in place, the city hopes to see lots like 456 Grand put to good use in the near future.
“There used to be a theater there,” recalled Peter Ruiz, 60, born and raised in the area. He looked upon the vacant Grand Street lot and continued to reminisce, “A lot of celebrities would come here. Then when the theater closed, a gas station moved in. There wasn't much service there, that's why it closed. It was more of just a hangout for the little gangs.”
The gas station left behind an estimated 4,500 tons of moderately contaminated soil. Underground tanks caused the contamination. The cleanup crew will have to dig 12 to 14 feet down and haul the soil to a treatment center in New Jersey.
After four years of laying fallow, Triangle Court LLC purchased the lot and will build a six-story, eco-friendly residential building on it, featuring bamboo floors and solar paneling. On the ground floor they will also build a diner and a pharmacy.
“The reason we entered the OER [Office of Environmental Remediation] brownfield program, is because of the wonderful incentives when we [reach] completion,” said Meir Babaev of Triangle Court LLC. “We get a New York City green property certification. … We get a New York City brownfield incentive grant, and we get environmental liability protection.”
Several area residents gathered on the sidewalk lining the lot to listen to the development plans. They were happy to see the contamination taken care of, but remained skeptical about the benefits a new housing and retail development would bring.
“Why don't we have a park here?” asked Ramon Bloomfield, who lives across the street with his wife and child. “It's over-developed. How many buildings can you build before you put in a park? You have a little park by the [Brooklyn Queens Expressway], but who's going to sit next to the BQE? Rushing traffic, fumes coming in [while] you're sitting there with your kid—that's not a park!”
Ruiz isn't so sure the diner or housing units will succeed. He pointed to a building across the street from the planned development.
“That building has been mostly vacant for 10 years. Nobody can afford to live there. … We already have diners here. They open and close. They are here for a year or two, and then they close.”
Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who grew up in Williamsburg, had a different take on it. She said she is happy to see an area with so many stalled sites moving forward with development. She also celebrates the 100 construction jobs and 100 new permanent jobs expected to spring up around the Grant Street development.
This development is the beginning in a citywide brownfield cleanup initiative projected to create 575 permanent jobs and $250 million in new construction.