Making Brownfields Green

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The corner of Bushwick Avenue and Beaver Street is described by local residents as a “rat-infested garbage dump.” Since the Rheingold brewery closed its Brooklyn plant in 1976, schemes to revitalize the seven-acre lot have failed.

But if Bushwick leaders and the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development get their way, the site could soon become a $75 million development of 460 low- and middle-income homes, storefronts, a day care center and parks. Community Board 4 approved the plan in June, and if it gets the green light from other city elected officials it would be one of the city’s first old industrial sites, or “brownfields,” to undergo redevelopment.

It may not be an exception for long. In July, the State Assembly passed a package of bills that would clear developers of responsibility for any future damages that result from a site’s former use, provided they clean up the brownfields according to state standards. More than eight years in the making, the legislation is the first of its kind passed in the state legislature, and observers are optimistic that Governor George Pataki and the two houses will come to an agreement by fall.

Compromise, however, entails sacrifice, and for some environmental and community groups it has meant making an about-face on the biggest sticking point of brownfield clean-up: How clean is clean? While nonprofit developers like the New York City Partnership, and community groups from brownfield-dotted neighborhoods like the South Bronx, have long favored giving developers flexibility in how they clean up, big green groups have argued for one, rigorous clean-up standard.

The assembly legislation sidesteps this controversy by creating a single stringent standard that also leaves the degree of clean-up open for negotiations between the developer and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It also gives communities a little more say: Developers will not get tax breaks or clean-up subsidies unless their plan fits with the community’s own proposals.

“It’s the first brownfields legislation in the country that would be forward-thinking and progressive in terms of community planning,” says Eddie Bautista of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. But with a budget agreement nowhere in sight, he’s also realistic. “This is going right back into that lovely Albany sausage grinder of legislation.”

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