What’s Up with Those Empty Lots in My Neighborhood?

By Doreen Wang

I had never heard of brownfields before I came to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). But the truth is, I’ve walked by them and seen them my entire life; I just never knew what to call those random, fenced in strips of land in New York City, that—except for wild tufts of weeds and grass—have been empty and abandoned for years.

Many of you probably know what I'm talking about. You never knew what to make of those vacant and fenced-off lots in your neighborhoods, because for a long time, no one in New York—from City Hall to the lot owners themselves—knew what to make of these untouchable lands haunted with the ghosts of environmental contamination. And I certainly did not know that the RBF has been working with other foundations and grantee organizations behind the scenes for the last 14 years to figure out how to clean up these lots and reclaim them as useful and beneficial spaces for our communities.

On June 18, 2012, in conjunction with our board of trustees meeting, I had the opportunity to attend a site visit of various brownfields. We started our trip by staring at an empty patch of grass surrounded by a chain link fence at the busy intersection of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, a corner I walk by almost every week. This corner is prime real estate in Harlem that could provide housing, stores, office space, and community centers. Each time, the remediation and redevelopment process begins, all the neighboring buildings or houses get a leaflet about the impending cleanup and construction plans; the proposed redevelopment also goes to the local community board for review.

That day, we traveled the expanse of 125th Street and over the Triborough Bridge into the South Bronx with staff members of the Office of Environmental Remediation—stopping at a number of sites to see brownfields in various stages of clean up and redevelopment. One site formerly housed a printing shop, dry cleaner, factories, and a photo development lab. When construction is finished, this corner of 126th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard will be transformed into a new retail center. Our final stop was Westchester Avenue in the Bronx, where we toured the first finished project under the New York City Brownfields Cleanup Program. The affordable housing complex—complete with a white roof with solar panels—achieved LEED Silver certification. Within the first week of opening, it received around 4,000 rental applications, clearly filling a vital neighborhood need.

The brownfields site visit, not only heightened my understanding of brownfields, but also gave me a better sense of the RBF’s environmental grantmaking. The RBF’s brownfields work is a good example of how our environmental grantmaking has the potential to cut across so many issues—including the public health and economic health of a community. What was striking to me was how long it took (14 years) for the RBF and other colleague funders to see the results that have come into fruition today—strong, well-funded brownfield cleanup programs in New York State and New York City; and a federal program that aims to replicate the best of New York’s programs. For me, this was also another lesson demonstrating how philanthropic work requires a strong dose of patience.

Today, if developers want to redevelop a site, the risks associated with the infamous brownfield have been greatly reduced. Developers can work with the city to determine what kinds of toxins are on the site, what cleanup measures are needed, and are introduced to scientists and engineers specifically trained to handle legacy pollution. Once developers go through the city’s cleanup program, they are also cleared of liability on both the city and state level.

So, the next time you walk pass an empty lot in your neighborhood, you may be witnessing a candidate for an extreme makeover. To see if the lots located by you are on the pipeline for remediation and redevelopment, please visit the OER’s online document repository to find projects organized by borough.

Doreen Wang is program assistant for the New York City and Southern China programs.

Read, The Story of Brownfields, a report about the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s 14 years of brownfields grantmaking.