New York state’s original brownfields law, passed in 2003, was too generous on the redevelopment side, providing unlimited tax credits to New York City developers for megaprojects they likely would have undertaken anyway. The Legislature was right to amend it in 2008 and cap those credits.
But the federal government’s brownfields program doesn’t need to be restricted, it needs to be expanded. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Paul Tonko are pushing legislation to do that, and we wish them luck. With the current composition of Congress, they’re going to need it.
Brownfields are vacant or abandoned former industrial sites contaminated by chemicals or oil. For the good of the environment, they should be cleaned up. For the good of the local economies where they’re located, they should be redeveloped. That is what brownfields programs are meant to encourage.
And that is what New York state’s has done with a number of projects in Schenectady. The Union College soccer field was built on a former brownfield, as was the new Golub Corp. headquarters on the other side of Nott Street. Both were owned at one time by Alco, and now the main Alco plant along the river has been torn down and the 60-acre riverfront property is to be cleaned and redeveloped by the Galesi Group with the help of brownfields money.
Like these, most of the nation’s brownfields (estimated at between 450,000 and 1 million) are located in cities, predominantly in the Rust Belt areas of the Northeast and Midwest. Cleaning them up and putting them back to productive uses, in the process eliminating blight, protecting the environment, creating jobs and producing tax revenue, would be a major part of the country’s urban policy — if it had one.
Gillibrand and Tonko’s proposal would reauthorize the federal brownfields program, congressional authorization for which lapsed in 2006, and expand it. The changes would be focused on site assessment and cleanup, rather than redevelopment. That would keep the cost fairly modest, $250 million a year, and make it possible to fund more projects.
Gillibrand says the bill has bipartisan support, and a real chance, in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Unfortunately, there’s little to no chance in the House, where the dominant Republicans, for ideological as well as fiscal reasons, voted last week to slash the Environmental Protection Agency budget by a third. The only hope is if President Obama were to make it part of a bigger budget deal, and he should.