Three years ago, three local community organizations – The Point CDC, Sustainable South Bronx and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice – banded together in an effort to ensure that new development met the needs of residents.
Surveying the opportunities, they found that the rebuilding of the South Bronx had gobbled up much of the land where apartments had been destroyed by fire and abandonment. Yet, as Julien Terrell, environmental justice organizer at Youth Ministries, notes, the demand for housing, schools and green space remains high. So the organizations turned their attention to “brownfields,” land that had been contaminated by its previous use.
Pooling their resources, the three organizations hosted a series of meetings where local residents could voice their opinions about what they would want to see if sites that once housed a gas station or a drycleaner, a factory or a garbage dump, leaving behind toxic substances like gasoline or solvents, could be reclaimed.
One proposal included a skate park for youth in one of the underutilized lots along Garrison Avenue. Another proposal called for building a recycling plant to employ local people in the vacant Oak Point rail yard.
All told, the three organizations came up with ideas for building new housing and stores, enhancing access to the Bronx River and improving transportation. They submitted their proposals to the state, which in 2002 created a Brownfield Opportunity Areas program to provide community based organizations with the technical and financial support to come up with strategies for cleaning and developing brownfield sites.
In response, last November, the state named the South Bronx Waterfront Brownfield Opportunity Area a “spotlight community,” a designation that recognizes great potential for transformation and growth.
According to Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, The Point’s executive director, the spotlight nomination signaled that the three organizations should continue their work. Now Sustainable South Bronx and The Point are focusing their efforts in Hunts Point while Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice looks more closely at the Bronx River waterfront.
The local efforts were initially frustrated by red tape. In 2007, a report from New Partners for Community Revitalization, a citywide organization devoted to revitalizing brownfields, found that promised funds weren’t forthcoming. Alexie Torres-Fleming, the founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, said her organization had been forced to take out loans to pay for studies the state was supposed to cover.
In July 2008, the Department of State took over the administration of the program. Now, according to Jody Kass, executive director of the New Partners group, “funds have started to flow and the program is running much more smoothly.”
That does not mean that the land will be cleaned up or that it will be used in accordance with community wishes, however. Adam Leibowitz, director of community development at The Point, worries about whether the state program “has any teeth.” He is perplexed about the disconnect between planning and doing.
“If the state is funding the envisioning work,” he said, “then it should also facilitate the re-envisioning of the area’s brownfields.”
Terry-Sepulveda says residents will have to work to see to it that developers who come into the neighborhood stay true to the community’s vision.
And there is no guarantee that developers will come. The downside of developing brownfields, said Torres-Fleming is “the high cost of clean-up, which is a turn off for developers.”
John Fleming, senior community liaison at New Partners for Community Revitalization, said that “while the program is unique because it makes room for the inclusion of the community’s vision in the planning and research phase, there are no incentives strong enough to attract developers.”
His organization is working to persuade the Legislature to increase the tax break the state offers for redeveloping brownfields.
Still, in nearby Melrose, new apartments are rising on some of the last vacant lots in the Melrose Commons urban renewal area, thanks to a rewriting of the law to give non-profits a chance to build on small brownfield sites.
Closer to home, Terrell points to Concrete Plant Park as an example of a successful brownfield reclamation project. Spearheaded by Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, it took 10 years to complete.
“We try to be honest about the fact that it will not take two years,” Terrell said. He believes that a multi-pronged approach is necessary if the local vision for brownfields is to succeed. “That is done by training tomorrow’s leaders so that they can then take up the struggle,” he says.
A version of this story appeared in the August 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.