At first glance, it’s hard to see how an abandoned school in Harlem would be of much interest to environmentalists waging war against the steady march of Wal-Marts and subdivisions across America. Built nearly a century ago for waves of immigrant children, P.S. 90 on 147th Street has been shuttered for over 25 years, its majestic, rotting structure a striking symbol of urban decay and a neighborhood’s decline.

Crisply renovated tenements and a gleaming three-year-old police precinct speak to the neighborhood’s striking transformation in the last decade, as community redevelopment dollars have replaced vacant lots with vital resources. The school looms next to them as an ugly reminder of the not-so-distant past, when drug gangs roamed the neighborhood, taking over entire buildings. The gangs didn’t care that P.S. 90 was chock-full of asbestos. According to local lore, they used the school’s basement to dump dead bodies.

But to Phil Thompson, a political science professor at Columbia University and an advisor to the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI), a group that has taken on major urban redevelopment projects in this neighborhood, the school looks more promising. In its boarded-up windows and flooded basement, he sees the future of Harlem.

HCCI leaders and Thompson envision P.S. 90 being reconstituted as a technology center for area residents, providing an array of high-tech training and services for residents and businesses desperate for skilled workers. HCCI’s president, Rev. Preston Washington, promises nothing less than “the center for the most advanced technological and telecommunications found in any inner city community in the world.”

But to hear it from Thompson, P.S. 90 also holds one answer to some of the most vexing problems of our age. Think gridlock. Air and water pollution. Shrinking open space. At the center of it all slouches that creeping monster known as sprawl. In the suburbs, sprawl is no longer merely a quality of life issue; in many communities, it has become public enemy number one. Spurred by rising public disenchantment, a loose coalition of planners, politicians, and activists has coalesced to form a movement calling for “smart growth” as a strategic response.

Smart growth encompasses everything from the promotion of growth boundaries, which prevent suburbs from consuming pasture, to public transportation, denser development and the protection of open space. And it’s picking up momentum. In the last year, 37 governors mentioned sprawl in their State of the State addresses, and Vice President Al Gore has made his “Building Livable Communities Initiative” a key issue in his campaign. In 1999, state legislatures introduced about 1,000 land-use reform bills; 200 of them passed. Billions of public and private dollars have been set aside to buy up dwindling forests and farms. And last year, 30 philanthropic foundations–from the Bank of America to the Ford Foundation–came together to help form the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, which is looking for ways to make their money more effective. In the eyes of some longtime advocates for controlled development, like Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “sprawl is finally getting the attention it deserves.”

Upper Manhattan couldn’t be more different from the suburban and rural communities struggling with sprawl. Harlem residents live in high-density high-rises and rowhouses. They mostly get around by public transportation, and shop, by and large, in modest storefronts. But though it’s not part of the problem, Thompson believes Harlem must be part of the solution.

The alternative? At worst, a neighborhood where condos Harlem’s current residents can’t afford are built alongside relics like P.S. 90, until the toxic properties become so valuable that private developers will pay to clean them up. And at best, in Thompson’s view, sitting on the sidelines of the smart growth craze would be a missed opportunity to bring badly needed development dollars to Harlem.

To rebuild the area around Bradhurst Avenue, HCCI has taken advantage of every government program in the alphabet. But none of them has yet helped places like P.S. 90, which will cost at least $1 million to clean up. So like any good salesman who sees an opening, Thompson has been making his pitch to environmentally minded investors. You want to keep bulldozers from rolling over more forests and farms? Take a look at all this dormant land we have in Harlem. You want to keep city folks from flocking to greener pastures in search of the American Dream? Help clean up these properties so they can be converted not just into Starbucks and multiplexes, but also into affordable homes, clean parks and good schools.

When Preston Washington talks about the future of northeast Harlem now, he’s looking beyond the blocks of rehabilitated housing and stores that HCCI and the network of churches it works with have built over the last 14 years. With P.S. 90, he’s focusing on how the neighborhood can construct its own engine of growth. “We see technology as an enabler of economic opportunity,” he says. “What better way to address the digital divide than to build a top-notch technology center in an inner city?” He wants to transform other hulking hazards in the neighborhood–including a former film processing plant on 146th Street–into a culinary insitute, day care centers, affordable housing.

What Thompson and his partners intend to supply is the way to get there. They will be a clearinghouse for all the possible sources of funding for cleaning up polluted land, including government programs and private grants. On top of that, they plan to create an investment fund to get those sites developed. By aggressively pulling together the resources to do the job, they hope to reclaim orphaned pieces of New York City and put them back into service–as public resources that won’t get built without a helping hand.


The idea that contaminated land needs to be cleaned up and put to good use is not new. Neither is linking the reuse of these “brownfields” with curbing suburban sprawl. The Sierra Club, Trust for Public Land and other environmental groups have spent the last decade championing transportation, land use, and tax policies that encourage development to stay in areas where it already exists–and to stop it before it threatens wildlife and open space.

In brownfields, they see a ready supply of land that is sitting fallow when it could instead provide choice central sites for commercial, industrial and, in some cases, housing development. “With brownfield redevelopment, there are clearly opportunities to take some of the pressure off of greenfields and farmland,” says Deron Lovaas of the Sierra Club’s national anti-sprawl campaign.

It’s obvious that redeveloping brownfields benefits outlying suburbs and rural areas by helping keep them pastoral and peaceful. But Thompson and a handful of other urban policy analysts have begun to point out that green pastures are just half the picture. For smart growth to work, they say, it’s also going to have to intimately involve cities and the people who already live there.

New York certainly has no lack of brownfields. According to the Public Advocate’s office, the city has more than 3,000 acres and over 6,000 individual properties sitting dirty and fallow–areas that if cleaned could provide jobs, housing, and room in a city bursting at the seams. By not advocating for brownfields redevelopment, New York City and State also forgo millions in federal dollars that could help revitalize these areas. And New York’s lack of a state law funding cleanup or protecting redevelopers of brownfields from liability has made it difficult for private players to do the job [see sidebar, “Brownfields Brownout”].

Yet as Thompson sees it, brownfields are the only real bargaining chips cities like New York hold–and the time to play them is now. “If we don’t move forward on this, we’ll see a city that becomes even more economically and racially polarized,” he contends. “I think the opportunity in Harlem is one where we can actually have development and economic and racial integration without losing the fabric of the neighborhood. But unless we can make this happen, what we’ll see instead is a rich, white Manhattan.”

To realize that vision of a Harlem rebuilt for Harlem, Thompson has brought together HCCI, the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), and Oakland’s PolicyLink, a social advocacy group, to explore potential redevelopment projects and create a fund for cleaning up and developing brownfields like P.S. 90.

The group sees the project as an evolving experiment, in which each project will be a testing ground for using the fund’s dollars more and more effectively. Brownfields cleanup is a notoriously difficult process. The technical demands of making sure a former industrial site is safe are just half the battle. Most cleanups also demand intricate legal maneuvering, to protect developers and investors from liability should cleanup costs spiral out of control, or a future tenant decide that the history of their building sounds like a good excuse to sue. (Legal action is fair game, however, if a developer has genuinely failed to properly clean a site.) CLF will help HCCI navigate around the red tape. “We figure out where the deal-breakers are,” says Jim Hamilton, director of CLF’s Brownfields Initiative. “And then we figure out how to overcome the obstacles.”

A consummate matchmaker, Thompson has been soliciting interest from groups that put money into socially responsible projects, from union pension funds to religious institutions and foundations; the Ford Foundation has already committed to supporting the brownfields fund, and the AFL-CIO is considering it. These players won’t just be contributing money to make brownfields green–they are literally investors, who hope to end up making a return on the deal.

With HCCI as its local developer in Harlem, the Conservation Law Foundation will serve as a consultant and financial intermediary. As a first step, it will identify sources of funding for cleanup, including tax credits, Environmental Protection Agency grants and foundation grants. If New York State finally gets its long-awaited brownfields law, it will likely also have state grants and tax credits to draw on. When the funding is in place, HCCI will hire environmental engineers and do whatever it takes to clean a site up.

Once a property is certified clean, it becomes like any other piece of potential-filled real estate–except that the partnership will have a say in how it’s eventually used and will require that projects benefit the community. To develop the site, investors can tap into a host of other resources out there for neighborhood development, such as the affordable housing tax credit. And profits, while likely to be small, are definitely part of the plan. “Return on a project like this will be blended,” says Thompson. “You might attract funds from the government to do brownfields remediation, and then private dollars for development.”

By pooling cash specifically for brownfields cleanup, the Conservation Law Foundation will be the first-ever syndicator, as far as anyone can tell, of funds designated to clean up polluted land in urban areas. In that role, it will function much like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and other organizations that pull together community development funding and channel it into carefully selected revitalization projects. And like LISC, the HCCI-CLF collaboration intends to make serious demands on the developers they work with, helping them obtain resources on the condition that projects bring badly needed benefits to a low-income neighborhood. “The key is that the projects have to be community-controlled,” says Hamilton. “The last thing we want is to fund a developer across the country to come in and plunder these properties.”

CLF’s president, Doug Foy, likes to think of brownfields redelopment as a potentially lucrative variation on the program-related investments that foundations often make to help organizations grow. Many foundations give charitable donations to environmental groups; why shouldn’t they get something in return for their money? By bankrolling community development organizations that are committed to brownfields redevelopment, investors can fight sprawl and make a profit at the same time, Foy believes. “You can blend hard-boiled Wall Street money with socially conscious investment,” says Foy. “I see the potential for some real magic here.”

New York’s lack of a state brownfields law, however, poses a particularly tough challenge for a scheme like this, because investors need to know they’re safe from legal action and other unexpected surprises. “The problems over cleanup standards and liability need to be addressed,” admits Foy, or “it will be hard to attract new new money or players the table.” Thompson hopes that the liability issue can be dealt with project by project, by purchasing private insurance if necessary.

Paradoxically, it’s New York’s lack of any state mechanism for cleaning up brownfields that created a vast opening for a private initiative like this one in the first place. Eddie Bautista of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest believes that the impasse in Albany over creating a New York State brownfields law may inadvertently lead to more creative and strategic partnerships like Thompson’s. “Nobody’s waiting for brownfields legislation,” he says. “We can’t afford to.”


J Phillip Thompson’s passion for complex ventures driven by ideas makes sense when you look at his résumé. He is a accomplished policy wonk, befitting his position this year as Visiting Fellow in Urban Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But underneath the brainy academic lies a savvy behind-the-scenes tactician who is no stranger to the problems of inner cities or the corridors of power: He served during the Dinkins administration as deputy general manager of the New York City Housing Authority. And perhaps most importantly, he sees the big picture out on the American landscape. “If we don’t figure out how to make cities more appealing and livable, as well as more dense, then the alternative, with increasing population growth, is sprawl,” he says. “We grow out or grow up.”

But it wasn’t until just over a year ago that he could see a way to bring city and suburb together in common cause. First, Preston Washington invited him to join HCCI’s board of directors.

HCCI’s fruitless attempts to move the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development to do something with P.S. 90 had frustrated Washington for a decade. The school sits in the middle of Harlem’s revitalized 40-square-block Bradhurst section, which is now in the second phase of a $200 million redevelopment program overseen by HCCI. Despite its decrepit state and prohibitive cleanup cost, the city did nothing out of the ordinary to try to revive it. Observes Thompson, “The school had not been viewed historically as a brownfield.” In fact, the city intended to demolish it and turn the space into a parking lot for the precinct next door.

Unlike HPD, HCCI was ready to look beyond traditional ways of doing business–in part because its own once-ample funding from the city has dropped steadily during the Giuliani administration. Instead of relying primarily on government and foundation grants for the housing redevelopment and its delivery of social services for people with HIV/AIDS, the group wanted to tap into alternative ideas and sources of funding for community development. “I think they saw that they needed to cross bridges and reach out to make new connections,” says Thompson. “They are beginning to realize, along with everyone else, that relying on government funding alone is no longer the ticket.”

HCCI has certainly been more willing than some community development corporations to enter partnerships with private companies. Through HUD, it has struck up an alliance with the technology giant Cisco Systems, which is wiring all of HCCI’s buildings, providing computer hardware and setting up a technology training facility to be run in conjunction with local colleges.

At around the same time HCCI was making its overtures, one of Thompson’s graduate classes at Columbia was entering a joint project with the Conservation Law Foundation. CLF has become virtually synonymous with the salvation of brownfields, having played an instrumental role in winning an $8 billion cleanup of Boston Harbor. To combat sprawl and protect the environment, CLF advocates that new development be channeled to existing urban areas. Three years ago, with just this goal in mind, the group kicked off its Brownfields Initiative. That program now has half a dozen redevelopment projects underway in New England, including the conversion of an old industrial laundry into affordable housing.

Previously, the group had depended on grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and private developers. With Thompson’s class, CLF wanted to survey the field and see if there was a market for brownfields acquisition that also existed among socially responsible investors. “By looking at more funding sources, we were looking to increase the size of the pie,” says CLF’s Jim Hamilton.

During the course of the project, students interviewed nearly 60 potential investors–everyone from pension fund managers to foundations–and found they were enthusiastic about the initiative. The AFL-CIO was one of them. “We think this is an excellent use of pension funds that want to achieve both a financial and social return,” says Brandon Reese, a researcher in AFL-CIO’s Office of Investment. “Our philosophical underpinning is a long-term vision. Workers’ pension funds are uniquely suited within the capital community to take a long-term and high-road approach to investing in such projects as brownfields,” says Breese. Instead of looking for a quick return, Breese says, it makes better sense to help turn communties around, which has far greater benefits for union members in the long run. “We want to invest in something that benefits the worker’s entire career.”

The students’ report was encouraging. “It opened my eyes,” recalls Thompson. And it convinced him that the right kind of coalition could conceive a new model of brownfields redevelopment–one that made sure inner cities got their fair share of the dividends and provided decent financial returns to investors.

It wasn’t long before Thompson brought HCCI and CLF together to explore a collaboration on brownfields reclamation projects in Harlem. In them he saw forces that would put brownfields to use for the community. HCCI has a stake in Harlem, unlike private developers who are interested only in getting the highest market value. And CLF is the rare nonprofit organization that has the technical, legal, and economic expertise to actually clean brownfields up.


Thompson is skittish about revealing other targeted sites for redevelopment besides the school. “If I start identifying these other brownfield sites,” he warns, “then speculators are going to buy this land before we get it. That could kill us.” He has reason to be nervous: Where opportunistic developers see that renewal is under way, they go cherry-picking, sitting on cheap properties until they can resell them at substantial profit.

“A lot of vacant lots already exist in the city, and some people are just sitting on them, waiting for the value to rise,” concurs Omar Freilla, transportation coordinator for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. This practice slows redevelopment in neighborhoods that need it the most. And when market forces do push the conversion of those properties into new housing and stores, those resources are often out of reach for longtime residents.

Groups elsewhere in the country are also trying to spread awareness that smart growth has to mean more than saving open space for suburbanites, or creating new hip urban neighborhoods for Wall Street brokers and dot-com revolutionaries. “Smart growth policies have to make sure the benefits are spread out and not focused on upper-income residents,” says Judith Bell, Vice-President of PolicyLink. “Otherwise, you wind up with a dynamic that pushes poor people to the fringe.” PolicyLink is working around the country with community groups like HCCI, helping to incorporate equity into urban development initiatives like brownfields reclamation. PolicyLink advises that such initiatives shore up neighborhoods’ resources by increasing the stock of affordable housing, creating land trusts and developing tax revenue–sharing initiatives.

Indeed, one of the reasons the AFL-CIO is interested in investing is because its members are increasingly being pushed from their homes and neighborhoods by gentrification. But while intiatives like the Harlem project have great potential to reclaim space in hot neighborhoods, it’s the poorest, most marginalized urban areas that Thompson believes stand to have the most to gain from the redevelopment of brownfields–and the most to give back to the smart growth cause. “I think that dealing with the hard issues in the hardest neighborhoods is the real key to fighting sprawl,” says Thompson. “You have to deal with crime, and education, and ugliness, because that’s why people leave cities.”

In other words, you curb sprawl by making cities more livable–economically, environmentally, and aesthetically. The Conservation Law Foundation’s Jim Hamilton has his own way of posing the same challenge. “Fixing urban sprawl,” he says, “requires fixing where people live.”

Keith Kloor is an associate editor of Audubon.