A prominent local landscape architecture, engineering and planning firm sees a promising future — and way of protecting green space — in helping clean up and redevelop today’s industrial brownfields.
Saratoga Associates has just created a “brownfield initiative,” emphasizing planning and analysis services for communities and companies that want to redevelop old mills and other industrial properties.
Often, those sites have been contaminated over the years — with hazardous materials like asbestos, lead, mercury, various chemicals, waste oil and PCBs.
But with proper cleanup, those properties can be reused. Saratoga Associates sees growth potential in developing plans for those cleanups, given the thousands of polluted sites across the state.
Company President Robert F. Bristol said it’s a natural move for the large consulting firm.
“We’ve had for 40 years a very heavy emphasis on environmental work, and brownfields was a part we didn’t have,” Bristol said.
Saratoga Associates, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last summer, has offices in downtown Saratoga Springs and in New York City, and last month opened a new office in Syracuse. The firm has about 60 employees.
Saratoga Associates has worked for a number of years with the city of Amsterdam, helping plan for site cleanups and redevelopment at the old Mohasco Mill site on Forest Avenue and at the Chalmers Knitting Mill on the South Side.
Redeveloping those properties could bring new life to the city, the thinking goes — and it applies to other upstate communities, as well.
“There are a number of beautiful buildings around here that haven’t been redeveloped because of concerns about contamination,” said Dan Shearer, an environmental engineer who recently joined Saratoga Associates to head its brownfields studio.
Bristol said Shearer gives the firm the in-house ability to carry out an entire brownfield redevelopment — from advance planning the best use for polluted land, through identifying the types and extent of contamination, to overseeing the site’s cleanup — and then its redevelopment for a new use.
Shearer said the brownfield sites in Amsterdam are pretty typical of what might be found in other upstate cities that were once industrial powerhouses, and are now looking for a new life after their mills closed.
“They’re part of the mill belt. There’s great potential for redevelopment there,” Shearer said.
A brownfield is any industrial site — it could be a piece of land, an industrial complex, or just a single building — where contamination is known to have occurred, or is even just suspected.
“Over long-term industrial use, you will get some contamination,” Shearer said.
No one knows exactly how many brownfields there are; estimates range from 400,000 to more than a million in the United States alone, according to the National Brownfields Association.
The association, based in Chicago, said between 20 percent and 50 percent of all industrial real estate may be brownfield, and as much as $2 trillion worth of property may be undervalued due to the presence of contamination.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation reported there are 800 brownfield sites around the state in some sort of cleanup program, and probably thousands more sites that haven’t been addressed. There is no central registry of such sites.
New York state encourages the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields. This year, the Legislature boosted tax credit incentives for private brownfield redevelopment that were first made available in 2003.
“Gov. [David] Paterson seems to really understand that economic revitalization and redevelopment needs to continue,” Shearer said.
Shearer worked on some of the same Amsterdam projects as Saratoga Associates in recent years, though for a different environmental consulting firm.
Shearer said he joined Saratoga Associates to have a greater impact on specific projects.
“We can go in and clean up a site with a specific future use in mind,” Shearer said.
At the Mohasco site — a huge abandoned carpet mill complex devastated by two massive fires in the early 1990s — Shearer noted that removing the old buildings and then restoring the land exposed a beautiful stretch of the Chuctanunda Creek. The property is now being marketed to prospective developers.
The project, aided by a $2.5 million state grant, cleared 23 acres in the heart of the city, less than a mile north of downtown.
“At the end of the day, the city of Amsterdam has gotten rid of an eyesore and restored the natural beauty of the site,” Shearer said.
The work being done to revitalize Amsterdam was the focus of a presentation Shearer made earlier this year at a conference of the National Brownfields Association.
Bristol said Saratoga Associates has been involved with some aspect of brownfield remediation since the early 1980s, when it did analysis of conditions and remarketing of real estate around the notorious Love Canal toxic waste site in Niagara Falls.
During the Pataki administration, the firm worked for the state on a model industrial site cleanup in Rome, Oneida County.
Bristol and Shearer both see removing industrial contamination on previously used properties as a way of keeping other lands from being developed unnecessarily.
“Rather than develop new green fields, we need to redevelop old brownfields,” Bristol said.
Urban locations, even if they need cleanups, can be cheaper to develop than outlying areas, because the water, sewer, power and road infrastructure is already in place, Shearer said.
“The reality is, brownfields redevelopment makes good economic sense,” Shearer said.
Because of the economic argument, and the public desire to protect existing open space, he expects brownfield cleanups to become more common in the future.
“I absolutely see it as a growth industry despite the current economic climate. It is very good business to redevelop our urban cores,” Shearer said.