A Tale of Two Brownfields

Photo by: Marc Fader
Workers near the former Wolff-Alport chemical factory near the Brooklyn-Queens border. A series of studies have found varying degrees of radioactive contamination. Whatever the risk, employees we spoke to on or near the site were mostly unaware of the site's history.

Even as a city program for cleaning up contaminated sites shows promise, two tainted areas in Brooklyn reflect different challenges that remediation can face – like pricetags and politics.

By: Jake Mooney

As far as anyone knows, the long, low brick building at 1127-1129 Irving Avenue, just on the Queens side of the Brooklyn-Queens border, became a brownfield-in-waiting around 1940, when the building's owners began importing monzanite sand from the Belgian Congo. The owners, at the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, extracted rare earth elements from the sand to sell, and then sold some of the leftover thorium, a radioactive byproduct, to the federal Atomic Energy Commission. The rest, they dumped down the sewer.

The energy commission told the company to stop dumping chemicals in 1947, though it wasn't until 40 years later that the feds notified local health officials of possible contamination. By that time, Wolff-Alport was long gone and tenants included companies called Lynda Knitwear and Beth-a-Way Beverage. The site, the government emphasized, did not qualify for federally funded cleanup.

But it did qualify for further study. A 1988 investigation found small amounts of radiation. A 1994 study found even smaller amounts. Investigations in 2007 and 2009, though, found radiation in unsafe concentrations, and 20 feet under the ground, with indications it had spread off the property. In 2010, the city announced the material was not harmful. Then this February, yet another federal study concluded that workers at an auto body shop now in the old factory building, and also pedestrians who walk by frequently, could have an elevated risk of cancer.

“Removal action,” a June report on the study said, “is warranted.” So, it suggested, is further investigation, which could land the property on a national priorities list, eligible for Superfund cleanup.

Brownfields across the boroughs

The Wolff-Alport site, though, is hardly unique, either in its degree of contamination or in the halting efforts to assess it. It is one of hundreds of brownfields – underused former industrial sites with varying levels of contamination – taking up more than 7,000 acres of land in the five boroughs. Mayor Bloomberg's office calls remediating brownfields a top priority, and several government initiatives, including a state brownfield cleanup program launched in 2003 and a city version started in 2010, aim to help.

There has also been some federal help for brownfields. A tax incentive that made cleanup costs deductible lapsed at the end of last year – though some elected officials have pushed to reinstate it, and the Environmental Protection Agency notes that property owners may be able to claim the deduction retroactively if the deduction returns. Beyond that, the agency offers grants for site assessment and cleanup, and revolving loans to localities, which can in turn offer their own grants to fund cleanups. Finally, the Superfund program aims to charge responsible parties to decontaminate land – and, if they can't be found, to pay for the work with federal funds.

The city's and state's programs, by contrast, are designed to work by putting the financial burden for cleanup on the people who want to use the land – its owners – with a boost from government.

Progress, however, is slow. For every site entered in one of the various cleanup programs – as of June, 39 of them in the city had completed the state's program, and 54 more were going through investigation or remediation – many more are stagnant.

The state Brownfield Cleanup Program has overseen remediation of sites like 220 Water Street in Dumbo, a manufacturing building converted into luxury rental apartments, and the sprawling Queens West site in Long Island City, home to a series of high-rise residential towers. Also receiving tax credits were the Gateway Center Mall at Bronx Terminal Market, and another residential tower project on West 61st Street in Manhattan.
But the program has drawn criticism from brownfields advocates who argue that the subsidies for each project are too generous, reducing the program's scope, and are too often directed to big developers who don't really need it.

In June, when the state legislature voted to extend the program's scheduled expiration to December 2015 from March 2015, the watchdog group Environmental Advocates of New York reported that its associated tax credits has already cost the state over a billion dollars. The vast majority of that money, the group said in its report, had gone toward covering developers' building costs rather than cleaning sites. And, advocates argued, the developers who were getting the money were often working on large projects that would have been built anyway, in relatively prosperous areas – the West 61st Street site alone received more than $23 million between 2008 and 2011, and a project in White Plains got $113.8 million in the same period. Meanwhile, they say, low-income communities, where polluted former industrial sites are common, are overlooked.

The danger now, advocates say, is that the state tax credit associated with the programs will be allowed to expire in 2015 – after just a few projects have eaten up most of the funding and before many smaller sites had a chance to qualify.

The city's alternative

Advocates say the city's newer program, which is tailored to focus on smaller, more easily overlooked sites, is an improvement. Still, its scope is necessarily limited, like the scope of the state program, by the city's fiscal constraints, which mean cleanups have to be led by developers who want to build something new on those parcels. The city can offer grants and technical help, but if no one wants to build on a site, it doesn't get cleaned.

“It's not like the city is going to go out and clean up brownfields. It's just not feasible economically,” said Jeff Jones, an Albany-based consultant who works with the organization New Partners for Community Revitalization. “What if there was a city agency or a state agency whose job was to get sites shovel-ready, and then other people can develop them? That would be pretty cool, but the costs are just prohibitive.”

The city program, which uses grants rather than tax credits, offers far less money than the state's. Its Brownfield Incentive Grant program, funded through the mayor's PlaNYC initiative, has about $9 million, and grants are capped: While specially designated “Preferred Community Development Projects” can receive up to $135,000, most projects are eligible for only $85,000.

Still, developer-based cleanup programs should work better in New York City, Jones said, because land is scarcer and sites, even in lower-income neighborhoods, are more prized. Indeed, in the city program's short life it has already been enrolling local sites at an impressive pace. As of late July, the city Office of Environmental Remediation's web site listed 57 sites in the five boroughs that had applied for cleanup.

“There's a lot of people out there who want to do this kind of construction in the city, at least as compared with other parts of the state and county,” Jones said. In one eye-popping figure, he noted, the mayor's PlaNYC initiative predicted the city's population will rise to more than 9 million by 2030.

“Another million people, where are they going to live?” Jones said. “A lot of them are going to live in housing that's being constructed now, and over the next 10 years, on cleaned-up brownfields.”

Unaware of danger

It is not impossible to imagine that the Wolff-Alport site could one day be a desirable place for housing – new apartments have been constructed nearby on Moffatt Street, and the general area nearby, the most recent state study notes, contains residences, businesses, a public school and a private day-care business.

There are already plenty of people working on the site itself, with varying degrees of concern – and awareness – of its condition. Alberto Hilda, the owner of Primo Auto Body, which has been at the western end of the building for 12 years, said this month that government inspectors had come by to take soil samples about two years ago, and had returned recently with a device to measure radiation.

“He didn't tell me nothing. He told me it's OK,” Hilda said, though he added, pointing to a spot on the street outside the business, “He said he got a lot of radiation right around here.”

Next door at Terra Nova Restoration Corp, one of the owners, who did not speak English, referred questions to a receptionist. The company had been in the building for just two months, the receptionist said, and the owners had not been aware of the site's history. Across Irving Avenue at Arctic Glacier Premium Ice – which owns the contaminated building and uses part of it for storage (though of dry goods, not of ice) – a man who workers identified as a supervisor declined to give his name.

Of the investigation's results, he said, “I think they may have said something to the head office, which is in Canada.”

He added, “I've been here since 1988. Never seen anyone get sick from cancer or anything else.”

Officials at the company, which mainly sells packaged ice and which has been buying up smaller ice businesses around North America since its founding in 1996, could not be reached for comment. Arctic Glacier itself was sold to a private investment firm, H.I.G. Capital, in July.

As shaved-ice vendors refilling their carts navigated around standing puddles on Irving Avenue, a worker at a nearby iron company, which used to operate out of the contaminated building, said its history was unsettling.

“We were there for two years, and I found out through Google, basically,” said the worker, who identified himself as the son of the company's owners but did not give his name. The business had recently moved a hundred feet across the street, to a larger space.
“Over here we should be fine,” he said, “hopefully.”

Vincent Arcuri, chairman of Queens Community Board 5, which represents the area, said the site, and its contaminants, had long had a low profile.

“There were never any complaints that we know of,” he said, though he added that several parcels in the area are now known to have been part of the Manhattan Project and other early nuclear-related programs. “In my opinion,” he said, “it's just the government getting around to checking the old sites to see what's going on.”

Of the Wolff-Alport site specifically, he said, “It's off the beaten path, across from the cemetery and partially industrial, and there's not really much concern, I guess, because there wasn't really that much there.”

Getting such out-of-the-way sites into brownfield cleanup programs is a tough sell for developers, he said, because despite the government subsidies, the cleanup expenses are high.

“It's a two-edged sword,” Arcuri said. “You get tax write-offs, but you've got to keep monitoring for the rest of your life.”

When a private developer wants to develop a small site and do clean-up, he added, “it may be break-even at best.”

Arcuri argued that higher subsidies would make the programs more attractive to developers. Of course, rising property values on contaminated land would help make such developments profitable too. At the former Atlas Terminals site in Glendale, Queens, a developer built a shopping center and then discovered contaminants on a 6.8-acre site next door. It now plans to remove 66,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, through the city Brownfields Cleanup Program, and develop the site further.

At Wolff-Alport, where there is no such shopping center next door, the calculus is different. Barring federal action, cleanup depends on interest from a private developer, and, Arcuri said, “If you wanted that land to be developed by a private developer, they'll have to eat the cost.”

At present, there are no takers.

Pollutants mix with politics

Even when all the pieces seem to be in place for cleaning up polluted sites, the road can be unpredictable.

The Broadway Triangle area of Brooklyn, bounded by Broadway, Union Avenue and Flushing Avenue, contains dozens of vacant and underused former industrial lots, many of which contain contaminants. But it lies in a high-traffic area on the border of South Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he pull of rising Williamsburg property values, and demand from the area's ever-growing Hasidic community, make it attractive to developers. And most important, for years redevelopment in the area had a political patron, State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who had the motivation and wherewithal to shepherd the land through the development process.

In 2009 the City Council approved a vast rezoning of eight city blocks within the triangle, an area containing dozens of properties – many of them brownfields – both publicly and privately owned. A development plan for 31 acres of city-owned land within the rezoned area called for more than 1,800 units of housing – about half of it designated as affordable – to be built by two organizations connected to Lopez, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen Council and the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg.
Then, not long after it was approved, the Broadway Triangle project – and the attendant cleanup and reuse of its city-owned lots – went off the rails.

In 2009, 40 community groups sued the city over the plan, arguing that the groups chosen to handle the development were chosen through an unfair process that excluded organizations without political connections. Moreover, they argued, the plans for the proposed affordable housing unfairly favored Hasidic residents over blacks and Latinos. In December, a state Supreme Court justice agreed, temporarily halting the project and throwing its future into legal limbo.

In an interview, Lopez emphasized that he was not directly involved in the city plan, and noted that it was derailed by the details of the housing on the site – not the general concept of housing there, which he supports and which he said remains popular.
One of the success stories evident in the Broadway Triangle saga, he said, has been the state Brownfield Opportunity Areas program, for which he was partially responsible. The program designates zones in need of rehabilitation and facilitates community discussions about their future, under the theory that, once some form of consensus has been reached, redevelopments can proceed more smoothly. In the city, the designated opportunity areas include Newtown Creek and Staten Island's North Shore. They also include the Broadway Triangle, and though consensus is far off in that case, Lopez said the community process had still yielded positive results.

“The lawsuit did have an impact,” he said, “but we're moving along.”

Today city-owned brownfield sites along Throop Avenue, between Bartlett and Gerry streets, are among those whose future is uncertain. So are city-owned sites along Flushing Avenue at Whipple Street. And while the Environmental Protection Agency lists the properties as brownfield sites, even the nature and level of their contamination is unclear: City documents associated with the Broadway Triangle plan mention iron works, auto repair shops and manufacturing operations as past and present tenants.
But even if the city has yet to clean up its own land inside the Broadway Triangle, the rezoning has yielded some promises of future reclamation. City Brownfield Cleanup Program records show that among the 26 Brooklyn sites that have participated in the initiative, a handful are on private land, near the city's, that was rezoned for the Broadway Triangle initiative. While the city development is prohibited from going forward, the private property owners nearby have applied for – and received – permission to build new residential buildings.

The owners of the sites, including some on Wallabout Street and Throop Avenue, are Brooklyn-based developers or entities controlled by them, like the Rabsky Group and Wallabout Throop Realty. Former uses include stores, restaurants, a plumbing business, parking lots and factories, and the owners say they have found fill containing pesticides, petroleum, lead and arsenic, among other chemicals.

If the cleanup and redevelopment goes according to plan, the developers – aided by the rezoning and the brownfields plan's incentives – will eventually remove the contaminants, cap the land, and build a dozen new buildings, mostly residential with some commercial space.

And at the end of that process, whenever that is, the number of New York City's brownfields will shrink just a bit.

This story was produced in coordination with the Investigative News Network brownfields reporting project.