Urban blight and brownfields

June 6, 2013

Many cities and towns across the Southern Tier are dealing with urban blight and brownfields. Municipal planners are working on ways to address these issues, and looking for ways to transform brownfields and rundown neighborhoods into an economic opportunity for the entire community.

Crystal Sarakas hosts.

Transcript: 

CRYSTAL SARAKAS:  Many cities and towns across the Southern Tier are dealing with urban blight and brownfields. Municipal planners are working on ways to address these issues, and looking for ways to transform brownfields and rundown neighborhoods into an economic opportunity for the entire community.  I’m Crystal Sarakas, and on tonight’s Community Conversation, we’ll talk about this urban blight, brownfields, and the issue in our community.  I’m joined tonight by Frank Evangelisti who is the Chief Planner in the Broome County Department of Planning and Economic Development.  And Tarik Abdelizim who is the Director of Planning, Housing, and Community Development for the City of Binghamton.  Thank you both for joining me tonight.

It’s easy to think about urban blight about being this major metropolitan problem, Detroit comes to mind as a place where you’d see these rundown communities and sections of the city.  But it does exist in smaller communities like Binghamton, Elmira, and Corning.  So is this an issue that the county and the city spend a fair amount of time working on?

TARIK ABDELIZIM:  Absolutely, what we see with blight is that it’s driven by a variety of factors, so it’s basically an issue of scale.  Where Detroit may be demolishing 10,000 homes over 5 years, Binghamton will try for 100.  But they pose the same problem, they are safety hazards, and we see a lot of our vacant properties that have been the cause of fires recently.  They depress market values in the neighborhood, they attract nuisance, and they also drain a lot of local resources, in that, parks need to go board up the properties, mow the lawns.  So yes, they are a serious problem and we do spend a lot of time on it in the city.

FRANK EVANGELISTI:  Blighted properties really are a symptom of disinvestment in the urban core, businesses and residents moving out.  These have been longstanding, and very deep.  They’ve been reversed in recent years, but there still has been a great deal of disinvestment.  When properties sit idle, and they look abandoned and unattractive, it causes others to not want to invest in the community. In the county, right now we’re in the middle of doing a county wide comprehensive plan, and we’ve had countless meetings with stakeholders and surveys, and hearing from the public.  And blight, has been an ongoing issue that has been raised by residents.

SARAKAS:  You certainly both touched on the negative aspect of this, how does a neighborhood or community fall into this level of blight?

ABDELIZIM:  Frank touched on it, it’s a migration of people and dollars, and it think that’s a trend driven by many different factors.  There is a direct correlation to the loss of industry, and manufacturing as a primary job-base for a lot of Northeast cities, and even a lot of the Midwest. So you’ve seen a shift of these jobs in manufacturing centers to Mexico, through free trade agreements, then to China.  And the loss of jobs is in the millions. With that then, you see people moving out to the suburbs, you see the loss of job base, you see the deterioration of housing stock, and it’s crippling.  Like you mentioned, it’s not unique to large or small areas, it’s really an epidemic across the entire country.  I mean, there are conferences now that focus specifically on vacant properties.

EVANGELISTI:  And I would add to that, not only is it the flights to the Sunbelt and other parts of the world, but the industrial building stock in the urban areas tends to be vertical.  If you think of these old EJ buildings, they did manufacturing on 3 or 4 floors, while modern manufacturing techniques don’t work like that.  Even the business that stayed in the area moved out to big, corporate parks because they needed big horizontal layouts to do their business.  Residents moved out because the suburbs were designed around the automobile, folks wanted to have their own home.  We experienced something in this area where we got sprawl without growth.  We had folks moving outside of the urban core, and then you get left with a building stock which isn’t what business investors are looking for.  They’re coming in looking for big horizontal space, instead we have building stock that has bays, and columns, and things that aren’t conducive to modern manufacturing techniques.  Homes that have a lot of “charm” but they don’t have big, open floor plans.  So it becomes difficult to attract investment back into these areas. However, you can stimulate investment into these areas, and sort of reverse these issues, but that’s sort of what the root causes are. 

SARAKAS:  There’s this term called “smart growth,” that is being used more often when it comes to planning.  And part of this goes with how younger generations may not want to move out to the suburbs like their parents did.  It seems like there’s this interesting reversal, maybe this is a good time to strengthen the urban core again.

ABDELIZIM:  Absolutely, it’s happening not just here, but everywhere that’s experienced these problems.  Throughout the planning field in the 90’s, where these conversations of smart growth came into the profession.  If we were to just pop down to 2000, and see how we built our communities, people would have though it’s insane.  Just an incredible waste of resources, and a reliance on an abundance of resources.  Transportation obviously focused around the car, really limiting mobility, access issues. The more infrastructure you build out, that’s more that needs maintenance and it’s a higher tax burden on a smaller tax base.  So were looking at this saying the built environment has a dramatic impact on the economic health of a community, the public health of a community, as well as the environmental health.  WSKG has been a strong partner, we formed the Livable Communities Alliance a few years ago, and the County is a partner.  There are about 30 other organizations that are endorsing, from the chamber of commerce to our anchor institutions (Binghamton University, BCC, hospitals.)  Were trying to get everyone to understand that we all want prosperous communities.  It’s not just to rebuild Binghamton, but to recognize our small rural hamlets like Windsor and Whitney Point.  We need to be focusing our investments in areas that we already have the infrastructure.

EVANGELISTI:  And let me jump in on that, it really is an economic argument.  Extending infrastructure becomes quite expensive, these sites have tremendous assets: water, sewer, electric, access to highways, they really are ready to go.  The difficult thing now is to make these sites shovel-ready, and to make these smaller residential and commercial sites

ABDELIZIM:  It’s not just the economics of it, but it’s also market preferences.  If you look at the trends, young professionals and even empty nesters, they want to be in a walkable community. They want to walk to the parks, restaurants, cultural amenities, where they send their children to school, and not have to rely entirely on the car.  So small communities like Binghamton and Johnson City can build around that, and again even our rural villages can become major assets and attract those folks that are looking for that charming, small feel but with all the urban amenities.

EVANGELISTI:  We talk a lot about the young professionals, but the elderly population is looking for the same things.  They’re getting to a point where they don’t want to have to drive everywhere, if they look farther down the road driving becomes more difficult, they want to be able to walk for health and convenience reasons, and they are looking for these neighborhoods.  Quite some time ago, when I was in high school, we lived in Appalachian, where you had to get in the car to go anywhere.  My dad was starting to think about retirement, and he moved us to Endicott, which I thought was an odd thing: to go from this bucolic setting, back into the urban area.  But it was because he could walk everywhere, he’d walk down to Cheever’s office on the avenue, he’d walk to Kmart, and he walked and biked everywhere. You see that on both ends of the spectrum.

SARAKAS:  Something that you said, Tarik. You talk about, especially when the urban sprawl began, when people began leaving the cities saying they wanted to live in the suburbs, it happened during a time of cheap energy.  How much does the price of fuel drive the return to the urban core?

ABELIZIM:  I think a great deal, I think we also saw that when gas prices increased dramatically, we saw a shift of folks using public transportation, it became cost competitive.  Here in Broome County, we have a great public transportation system, but it is limited.  There are some challenges, the routes are longer, and there’s always financial challenges.  Well, the more riders we get, the more sustainable the system is, the better it is, and the more robust it is.  There are just so many factors that come into play, but there is clear consensus not just from the planning community, but it’s the discussions with the healthcare practitioners.  Those who understand the connections between built environment and public health.  There’s an understanding between economic experts, that we have to move toward smart growth principles, and really rebuild in where our existing infrastructure already is.

SARAKAS:  And Frank, if you take a town like Vestal for example, that may be a very suburban place, you don’t have many sidewalks in Vestal.  You don’t have enough places to walk, everybody drives over to the parkway to do their shopping.  Can a community like that redesign themselves?

EVANGELISTI:  Absolutely, in fact it’s funny you mentioned that.  It’s easier to redesign yourself when you’re in a community like Vestal where there’s tremendous development pressure. Investors are coming in, wanting to build plazas, and if you set high standards through your zoning ordinance then they’ll build the type of community that you want.  It’s harder in a neighborhood where there is no development interest.  But in an area like Vestal, you could mandate sidewalks, bike racks, and all the things you want to see in your community.  And development communities will accept that as a cost of working there, and they will make those things.  We’re hopeful in the next few years that we’ll see a bike/walking trail connecting Binghamton University and Downtown Binghamton, which is exactly the type of thing that we’d like to see.

ABDELIZIM:  And I think that’s also what we need to move past: moving past provincialism and stop thinking about Vestal’s future within Vestal’s borders.  Vestal’s future is tied to Binghamton’s future, it’s tied to our rural villages, and it’s tied to whether we’re going to protect and preserve agricultural land and build up the agricultural industry.  All of it is tied together, you look at the flood and it didn’t stop at a municipal border, it affected all of us.  And that’s exactly an impact of sprawl, it makes us more vulnerable to disasters like that.

SARAKAS:  When you’re trying to bring more businesses, and residents back to the urban core, how do you decide between renovating existing structures, or building something from the ground up?  It seems like some of these smart growth principles would advocate for the former, and yet we saw with the university building a brand new structure instead of maybe renovating some of the older buildings.

EVANGELISTI:  It really comes down to market demand, some things need new layouts.  For example: Emerson wanted to build on the former Inotech site.  Industry is going to want the layout that they need.  Some of these facilities though, there are some former EJ facilities that we’ve gone through and done the environmental investigation, done some of the preliminary engineering work, and know they cant be a factory again.  But they sure could be housing, mixed use development, so in terms of a building that you think is attractive and feel that it still can meet a market need, sometimes a community has to do some of that background work to turn it over and entice a developer.  You have to do both, when you get to a project as big as the university center, sometimes it’s hard to find an old building that meets that.  So sometimes you run into more trouble trying to cobble together a bunch of these old downtown road type buildings.  But when you have smaller buildings, or buildings that meet a new demand, you can still encourage renovation.

SARAKAS:  And it seems like anytime you see one of these older buildings that is renovated, and has new life, there’s this surge of energy in the community.  People are excited to check out this place that I may have walked through with my parents or my grandparents, and there’s excitement about that.

EVANGELISTI:  I think in this community, we don’t realize how often we’ve done that.  People go to eat at Number 5, and they don’t know it was a firehouse.  Or the downtown former city hall that gets turned into a hotel.  Or all the old schools that have been shut down, and they get turned into senior housing.  In a lot of ways, were a leader in that type of thing, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.  People just sort of accept it, they don’t realize that this is something another community would come in and say “oh, that’s pretty cool!”  You go through some of these old buildings, and it is kind of fun to see that this used to be a classroom, and now it’s apartments.

SARAKAS:  WSKG used to be an elementary school, once upon a day.

EVANGELISTI:  Oh no kidding, I thought I felt like clapping erasers when I came in here.

SARAKAS:  I want to read a couple emails that have come in, first from Kate:  The talk of trying to redesign and getting communities closer together, and having easier access is very pertinent to our region’s young people.  Keeping them here, and getting them employed, and not just hanging them out.  What is being done right now to move toward this?

ABDELIZIM:  It’s a huge challenge, it really does require a plan or a vision, and you need to know where you’re going. I think that something that has been very impressive about this Governor, is he recognized that our economic future is tied together in regions, and that it really is the greatest engine in economic growth.  He mandated: get together, come up with a plan, identify your strengths, opportunities, assets, and then focus your investments on that.  Don’t try to be everything, recognize what your value is in your community, and how that fits into a larger plan.  So I think that’s there’s a lot going on to advance those goals, and we’re seeing a lot of success recognizing the university as an economic engine.  But it’s also going back to this sense of “rediscovering our urban core,” and I think we’re also rediscovering the fact that we can all be innovators.  That the small business culture in the community is going to be instrumental.  EJ is not coming back, there’s not going to be that large manufacturer that saves our region, its going to be the innovation that everyone can bring to the table, and recognize that we need to build that culture of entrepreneurship and celebrate it.

SARAKAS:  Isn’t it almost better that we don’t have one major industry come back to the area, where all your eggs are in one basket?

EVANGELISTI:  I agree, I think diversity in our economic basis is going to be key to being more resilient in the future.  My dad worked at IBM, and I thought employment at IBM meant lifetime employment. I couldn’t have conceived as a kid, IBM going from 14,000 employees down to 2,000.  So no, we don’t want one new big employer, I think for a long time that’s what we were looking for was that one big homerun.  But I think we’ve gotten past that, I do think that we’re looking at a more innovation based economy.  Everybody talks about Steve Jobs, but we had several Steve Jobs here.  And the next Steve Jobs is already here in the community, working on something.  And so, we are working on trying to encourage building a larger incubator that would work closely with the university and try to take all those great ideas that are happening on campus, and getting them out into the community.  Right now, the county is engaged in its first county wide comprehensive plan since before I was born.  That’s a very exciting effort, were about 2/3rds of the way through it, and I’ve been sitting down the past couple of days going through a lot of the comments, weaknesses, threats, and coming up with ideas for recommendations.  There’s a lot of exciting ideas that are going to be wrapped up into that plan, and I think you’re going to see a lot of excitement in the area.

SARAKAS:  I agree that it’s exciting, but I think it’s a little disturbing that this is the first time it has happened since before you were born.  And I think this goes back to what Tarik said about having a vision, is this something that residents of the area, having a voice and speaking up, is going to help move some of these plans and visions forward?

EVANGELISTI:  Oh, I think one hundred percent. We did a survey as part of the comprehensive plan, and we got over a thousand responses, and it was easy to get that because people love to talk about the community.  You get a lot of similar ideas, and ideas that have been tried before, but there have been a lot of new interesting ideas out there that are going to happen before the plan is even done.  And I think when people see that their ideas get incorporated into a plan, and come to fruition, they get excited and invested in the community.

SARAKAS:  When we talk about urban renewal, how small of an area is too small to get involved with?  Because, I know some people that may just be a small street, just 5 or 6 houses and they may not think of themselves as a neighborhood, but it seems like finding that identity is one of the critical things to getting people involved with their community. 

ABDELIZIM:  I agree with you, and that’s something that we put at the center of our comprehensive plan update as well.  Our initiative is called Blueprint Binghamton, we secured a nearly half million dollar federal grant to carry this out, were one of 27 cities across the country.  We wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a plan that was drawn up on the 4th floor of city hall, that we went out into the neighborhoods, we went out onto the streets, we talked with our small business owners, we went into the schools and talked with our children and in the senior homes, to make sure that this reflects what people want and desire.  Like Frank says, when they have ownership in their future, they’re going to feel much more empowered to become a part of it, and make sure it becomes real.  I think one interesting aspect is that were working with Binghamton University to do door-to-door surveys.  One of the things they ask, is to draw on a map what you see as your neighborhood.  So it’s going to be very interesting to get those results back.  When I drew it for me, it was basically my path to the grocery store, and the park.  That was my neighborhood.  And so, I think were going to start to see that unfold, I think that’s how you can move forward with revitalization plans.  To really connect with people, this is your community.

SARAKAS:  Do you think trying to encourage this neighborhood identity segmenting your community more?  Or is that bringing you together, just in smaller pieces.

ABDELIZIM:  I think you obviously have to keep a connection to the larger whole, and people do.  But people take pride in being a first-warder, or growing up on the Southside, but we all recognize we are Binghamton.  If you continue to have those events that celebrate ourselves as a community, we have to take pride in that.  Then I think those separate layers of identity empower folks to become powerful change agents.

EVANGELISTI:  And when we were doing our comprehensive plan, I made sure that we put on the mayor of Windsor, and the mayor of Whitney Point, put representatives of the farming community on the steering committee so we would hear those voices.  And we’ve had meetings out in those hamlets.  And actually, the village of Windsor is one of the gems of this community.  That is a community that is attracting investment from downstate New York.  It has a beautiful, intact Main street, and has a burgeoning arts community…

SARAKAS:  A great farmers market.

EVANGELISTI:  And a great farmers market!  So we’re investing in that, and helping them put some hotel/motel funds into their marketing efforts to the downstate.  They’re going together with Deposit and Hancock to do kind of a joint arts and cultural triangle in marketing themselves to the Downstate community.  And you’re seeing a lot of Downstate investment in that half of the county.

SARAKAS:  Here’s another email, this one is from Maxwell in Binghamton: “I know that you were talking about neighborhoods already, and probably want to move on to a different topic, but I can’t understate the importance of having a neighborhood.  I just want to hear your guest’s ideas on how to instill that sense of neighborhood, when you live in a place that lacks that feeling all together.”  That touches on part of my own life, I lived in a part of Vestal, didn’t consider it a neighborhood.  But I just moved to the Little Italy part of Endicott, that’s a neighborhood, with a very strong identity.

ABDELIZIM:  I think one of the challenges in Binghamton, is we are a transient community, in that, we only have a home ownership rate of 42%.  So when you see that there’s a constant shift of folks moving in and out of neighborhoods, it is challenging.  But the goal is to create a culture of neighborhood within certain spaces.  Right now on the North side, there’s an initiative by the Healthy Lifestyles Coalition led by the United Way Agency, it’s the “I Love My Block” project.  We’ve had a “design your own park” project, where people have galvanized and built strong social connections in revitalizing a pocket park, or underutilized space in the neighborhood.  You have to try and find as many creative ways as possible, but to me it comes down to place.  The more people know each other and feel that sense of connection, then people can move in and out of a neighborhood, and there can still be that positive attitude in that area.

EVANGELISTI:  And I think, in the rural areas, that’s there.  A lot of the rural identity is generated by the schools district, and that’s where a lot of the social activities are built around.  In the urban areas, the neighborhoods are well defined.  I think it’s the suburban areas where it’s much more challenging.  They don’t have a sense of neighborhood, because they drive everywhere. 

SARAKAS:  Another email, this time from Kim in Ithaca:  How do you think nature deficit disorder has played into the lack of neighborhoods, and getting people involved with the urban core?  I’m referring, of course, to people staying indoors on their gadgets, and not actually engaging with people.”

EVANGELISTI:  I’ll tell you, my son is a case study of that.  If I let him, he would sit there and engage with his gadget, even though we live on a beautiful 40 acre homestead.  But at the same time, I think you can use social media to connect to people that normally are transient or not connected to the community.  I think you can try to get them interested in the community.

ABDELIZIM:  I’d say that’s probably one manifestation of a larger cultural concern.  When you see a lot of schools moving back to “educational gardens,” I think you’re starting to see an instilment of appreciation of nature and beauty.  I lived down in the city for a while, and that “concrete jungle” is tough.  And then you come back upstate, and it really is beautiful.  The addiction to our gadgets has a negative side effect, but it’s a great way to do comp plans because you get feedback from a lot of folks.  So there are positives and negatives, and I think government should find a way to balance it.

SARAKAS:  Here’s another email, this is from Tim in Binghamton:  “The volume of blighted buildings in the Greater Binghamton area could be used as a great opportunity to allow high quality street art to flourish.  Using expressive art to improve what would otherwise be an eyesore, and helping to create a community identity through such expression could promote a more livable community, bringing with it future economic growth.  Do you think that the often negative view of graffiti could be overcome?

EVANGELISTI:  It’s funny you should say that, because I was just reading an article about that today.  People using graffiti or street art to overcome a negative area, they had a lot of fun and interesting examples of turning traffic safety cones in to fun and interesting things.  You have to be a little careful with graffiti because it is private property, so we can’t encourage someone to go and put graffiti on a piece of private property.  But I do think we can use public art as a way to get folks invested in the community.  I was thinking about this today, finding ways to get fine arts students at Binghamton University a place to have a canvas, whether it’s a mural or the side of a bus.  They’re then connected to the community, and it makes the community a much more vibrant place to live.  Again, I can’t officially endorse graffiti, but I do think that the idea of community created street art is very exciting.

SARAKAS:  Well you may not be able to endorse it on a wide scale, but there are many communities who have designated certain buildings and said “go ahead.”  There’s been some amazing works of art that have created opportunity in urban environments.

EVANGELISTI:  Oh I agree, I think that’s the kind of thing we can do.  We have to find that canvas, you know, buildings we control and own.  To me, it doesn’t have to be flat graffiti on a blank wall, but it could be lots of types of public art that’s created by the community.


ABDELIZIM:  I’ll give an example, at the skateboard park at Cheri Lindsay, we gave them control and said “it’s yours.”   If you go over there now, it’s absolutely stunning.  They took ownership of it, they recognized that they designed this.  They’re always rotating the murals and designs.  We also have a bunch of canvases throughout the city, they’re called “floodwalls.”   We’ve actually had one mural painted after the flood of September 2011, it was about community renewal.  But it would just be amazing to see them on all of the floodwalls, because we’ve turned our backs to the river.  Primarily because of the “structural obstruction,” they’ve blocked it from our minds.  So let’s reclaim that as a place where we can express ourselves creatively, and celebrate a lot of artistic talent.  There are communities, I think called “Blight Busters” where when municipalities don’t have the resources to take down a property immediately, we have that challenge all the time.  I have properties 30 or 40 deep on a demolition list, and its probably going to take 4 years to get through them.  Well, they’ll turn those over to artists in the community, or at least when the put the plywood up on the windows, they say “go ahead and decorate/design these.”  It’s a great project, but we need to do more of it.

SARAKAS:  Giving the artists these legitimate spaces, does that reduce the graffiti you don’t want in other areas, such as someone’s home?

ABDELIZIM:  I think so, and from talking with community development directors in other areas that have done this, such as Buffalo, they said that they did see evidence that if you give them space to do this creatively and empower them to do it, it becomes “less cool” to do it elsewhere.  It’s the same thing with skateboarding, you start to design skate parks that have the railings and benches.  And that’s where they go, instead of downtown on the river trail that costs $400,000 to build.  That’s why when were doing our comprehensive plans, listening to all of these youth voices is so instrumental.  We think we know better, but we don’t.  We really don’t.

SARAKAS:  I know that when I started researching for this program, I had this idea of what a “brownfield” was in my head.  It’s the “IBM plume,” it’s the massive 100 acres of industrial toxic piece of land.  But I’ve learned since that I was completely wrong, because these can be very small areas, they can be one business.

EVANGELISTI:  A brownfield is any piece of property whose development, or re-development is complicated by real or perceived contamination.  The perception of contamination is just as damaging to the property as real contamination.  So people when they think of brownfields, they think of “Love Canal,” they think of these massive sprawling U.S. steel facilities that are hundreds of acres.  Every time they see a former industrial site, they’re imagining millions in cleanup to get that property back.  But the reality is, most of the time the contamination is minor, and can be factored into the re-development cost.  It’s really the concern of the million dollars cleanups that keep developers away.  What you have to do is characterize these sites, you have to do a phase 1 and 2 environmental assessment.  So the developer can say, “well, there’s some leaking drums, maybe 6-10 cubic yards of soil needs to be removed, there was some underground storage tanks so that needs to be removed, and then the site is clean.”  The cleanup might be 20, 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars, which sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t a lot of money when you’re talking about a multi-million dollar investment.  And these sites can be put back into productive use, we’ve done a lot of work on this issue at the county.  We inventoried the sites, we ranked them and started working our way through the “priority” sites and cleaning them up.

SARAKAS:  So who pays for this?

EVANGELISTI:  The sites break down into a couple different categories, and the ones that are abandoned where there’s no prior owner, or the owner has gone bankrupt, that’s when the community has to step in.  That happens in a couple of different ways, you look at the Endicott forging site, we were told at the county that there were leaking drums and other contamination there.  We called the EPA, the EPA sent in their emergency removal team, they got rid of the drums.  The DEC came in and initiated cleanup there, that all was done with federal and state money that then gets put into a lien against the property.  So theoretically, it gets paid for once the property gets re-developed.  We took an EPA grant that we characterized the rest of the site, and said “ok, the EPA and the DEC took care of the emergency problems, is there anything else there?”  There really wasn’t anything else there, and the Village of Endicott used all of that background information that we did, plus the asbestos testing that we did to get a state grant to knock it down. So now that site is knocked down, the cleanup is ongoing, and that’s one of the downsides, that it sometimes takes years for the cleanup to be completed.  But now, someone going into that site if they’re interested in it, would have all the environmental documentation that they would need.  They wouldn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do that documentation.  So those “worst” sites, the federal and state government step in.  The next tier of sites are ones that are former industrial sites, that maybe the country is foreclosing on, or maybe they’ve been abandoned.  And for a lot of those, it really just takes doing the environmental investigative work, so that you no longer have to guess what’s there, you know what’s there.  We’ve tested it, this is what we’ve found, it’s estimated to be a 20 or 30 thousand dollar cleanup. You can turn this over to a savvy developer, and they can look at that and know they can make a project there. 

SARAKAS:  Is there a developer interest in this area?

EVANGELISTI:  Oh there’s a lot of development interest.  Look at the Gannett site in Johnson City, Wal-Mart and the Gannett printing press were built on a former EJ facility that was contaminated.  Newman Development looked at that, they weren’t scared of it, they calculated what the cleanup expense would be.  They worked with the owner of the property to factor that into the deal, and they cleaned the site up and now it’s a beautiful regional printing facility and a Wal-Mart. So these sites absolutely can be re-developed, it comes down to characterizing the level of contamination, and factoring that into the economics of the deal.  It’s harder in upstate, because property values are lower.  It’s easier in an area like midtown Manhattan, where an acre of land may be worth a million dollars, it’s easier to deal with a fifty thousand dollar cleanup.  It’s harder in this area, but you absolutely can do it, and we’ve done it time and time again. 

ABDELIZIM:  One good example in the city is the Twin Rivers Commons, that was a private development but it was basically on a brownfield.  So that prompted NYSEG, on a 4 or 5 million dollar cleanup.  Yes, there were some public financing tools that were used to make that development possible, but that’s a structure that will have impacts for 40 years.  Look at the benefits of that, now that you’ve changed downtown from a commercial district that went dark at 5 pm, to a residential neighborhood basically driven by students.  Now you see a second wave of investment, amenities, and services.  So that’s why it’s so important to make sure at the county or local level that any other economic development agency like IDA and the state, aligns all of our financing tools and policies to really help that development and prioritize it in the brownfield sites.  Rather than subsidizing that same project in a greenfield in a rural area suburb that doesn’t have the additional community benefits. 

EVANGELISTI:  The real advantage that the Greenfield site has over the brownfield site is speed.  A developer can walk in, get a building permit, and start construction.  Where as with a brownfield site, they first have to determine the environmental contamination situation.  But once they figure it out, they factor it into the cost of the project, and deal with it.  So that’s where we can step in, and do that environmental investigation, and be able to turn the documentation over to the developer.  We now know what you have to deal with, and all of the question marks go away.  And there’s nothing a developer hates more that question marks, because question marks turn into dollar signs.  So that’s what we have to avoid.

ABDELIZIM:  I definitely want to commend the county for the last few administrations, they’ve done an excellent job with brownfields.  They’ve also looked all throughout the county to figure out how to apply some of these investigative funds to get sites shovel, and development ready.

EVANGELISTI:  We’ve secured over a million dollars in brownfield investigative and planning funds.  We also have an established brownfield cleanup fund, we tax motel and hotel rooms, and we devoted those funds to brownfield cleanup.  And we’ve now established, or are in the process of establishing a land bank, which is kind of the next phase of how you deal with these properties. 

SARAKAS:  So as you’ve dealt with cleanup of some of these brownfields, and you have a new business moving in, how do you prevent it from becoming a future brownfield?  Are regulations tighter now?

EVANGELISTI:  Regulations are much tighter, business practices are much tighter, and environmental liability is substantially more stringent.  You look at what Tarik was talking about, the Twin Rivers Commons project, that was a manufactured gas plant.  There was a time when the gas to warm your house was manufactured in downtown Binghamton, and then pumped through the whole neighborhood.  We don’t do these things anymore, there’s environmental liability that doesn’t leave if you sell the property, or try to hide it with shell corporations.  We’ve really tightened a lot of that up, so businesses are much more responsible than they were.  We’re talking about legacy sites in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s when these issues first happened. 

ABDELIZIM:  That kind of ties into our national discourse in that, there’s this constant drumbeat for de-regulation in the gas industry and a lot of the exemptions they’ve received.  But the regulations are usually put in place in the wake of an incident that has impacted or impaired public health, or damaged the vitality of communities.  They didn’t just fall from the sky, so we have to be careful about those demands, when we put our children’s health or community vitality at risk, just to please the commercial activity at this time.  They’re there for a reason, and that’s what government does, is find the right balance between those different interests. 

SARAKAS:  If you have a major contamination in the community, especially with an older population that remembers how things were in the past, it can make residents incredibly nervous about future industries moving into an area.  For example, the concern of residents in Endicott, over National Pipe and Plastic moving into what is basically a residential neighborhood in West Endicott.  How do you, as planners, then balance the needs of the residents that are living there, and are concerned about their health, property values, quality of life, with the need to bring in new businesses?  Because you do need that economic development, we need jobs.  How do you balance that?

EVANGELISTI:  A couple of ways.  One is through a new, innovative program at the state called the Brownfield Opportunity Area Program, where you identify a neighborhood that has brownfields, and also has economic opportunity. So you create a neighborhood revitalization plan that the neighborhood is part of, and they basically sign off on. They say, “this is our vision for the neighborhood, and we accept market reality.”  In terms of sites like Endicott Forging, if you’re moving into a neighborhood you have to look at two things: Am I in the flood plain? And what’s the zoning, not only of my house, but of the sites in the neighborhood?  And if there’s a facility that’s zoned industrially, you should expect that it will be an industrial facility at some point in its future.  Because that’s what the comprehensive planning, and the zoning, has all said best fits that neighborhood.  And you have to take that into account when you move into a neighborhood. 

ABDELIZIM:  And anytime you have the chance to do a comprehensive plan, you are looking at your land use and zoning regulations.  Don’t just accept every artifact as a given, sometimes there is going need to be some bold changes made.  And I think now, with what we see in Binghamton, that one out of every almost seven parcels is going to be newly integrated into the 100 year flood plain, I mean that makes my brain freeze.  As were trying to bring everyone back into the community, celebrate our natural assets, and yet recognize that those are going to be very challenging neighborhoods to re-develop.  It’s going to be tough, but that’s why I think it’s important to engage the community in these challenging new questions. 

SARAKAS:  Is it really smart, for the city or the county, to build new structures within a flood plain? 

EVANGELISTI:  Well, it’s tough.  When people talk about “smart growth” that’s all well and good. But when you get down to the brass tax, in this community, the flood plain issues push people out of the urban core, and the steep topography is also challenging to deal with once you move out of the urban core. So you have to be very smart about how you deal with the flood plains.  You have to move what you cant protect, and protect what you cant move.  So you see with Lourdes Hospital, they built a flood wall.  They took a look at the cost and value of their facility, and the cost of a flood wall, and they were able to build that flood wall.  The new MacArthur school is being designed with the flood plain in mind.  There’s things residents can do, where they move their utilities out of the basement, and maybe move them to the 2nd floor.  They design the building to maybe accommodate a certain level of flooding.  In other instances, the city of Binghamton is looking to elevate I think 10 homes, so there’s times when an elevation makes sense.  You can design your community to work, almost in concert, with the flood plain.  Although, it’s extremely challenging. 

ABDELIZIM:  What was interesting, was when the Twin River Commons was being developed, our building supervisor told us to build three feet above the flood plain elevation.  They were resistant at first, because of the additional cost, but we saved them a bundle of cash.  Where as the university downtown center right next door was closed for almost a year, Twin River Commons was back up and running, continuing the construction the week after. So it’s about making sure that when people are making investments, that they are consistent with flood plain regulations.  There are regulations that allow you to build in the flood plain, just be smart about it.  But it’s also about hoping what were doing in the city, particularly in regards to flood mitigation, is coupled with the same kind of aggressive effort at the regional level.  Again, because this is a watershed, we can’t stop the rain, so it’s about how we manage the water.  We have to restore our wetlands along the watershed, we have to look at spillways.  All of those are going to be a smaller part of a larger strategy.  So were not just going to assume, since all of these homes are in the flood plain development stops, we just need to be smart about it. 

SARAKAS:  In the case of MacArthur, what is interesting is that the residents voted as to whether or not they’re going to rebuild MacArthur. 

ABDELIZIM:  Yeah, over 70% approval, it was great as someone who went there, and whose son will be going there in a few years.  The design is fantastic, it’s really going to be one of the best schools in the state once it’s completed.  And they really incorporated a lot of environmental educational opportunities, they are actually building wetlands in the back of the school area, it’s gorgeous.  I think they’re almost 10 feet above the base flood elevation, so if MacArthur ever gets flooded again, were all in serious trouble. 

EVANGELISTI:  Rebuilding doesn’t mean that you were flooded, and you rebuild the house the same way it was, you need to rebuild smart.  You need to recognize that it wasn’t a fluke in 2006, it wasn’t a fluke for the second time in 2006, and it wasn’t a fluke in 2011.  This is the reality that we’re living in, and you need to design your community to work within that. 

SARAKAS:  When we talk about these issues, (urban blight, renewal, smart growth, brownfield renovation) these are all some pretty long-term strategies.  So how do you maintain momentum with these strategies within a changing political structure?  Because a lot of this is driven by the administration, policies, and incentives that are in place then.  How do you continue that even when the mayor or county executive changes?

EVANGELISTI:  That’s very difficult, but part of it is, you put into place not just policies but actual regulations that will outlive any administration.  This Thursday we’re having a municipal training, and one of the training topics is “how do you do a no-adverse-impact flood plain development?”  A flood plain ordinance is kind of “boiler plate,” everybody who is part of the flood insurance program has one.  But you can go beyond that, you can have a flood plain ordinance that is more effective, and you make it part of the law.  When you do a comprehensive plan, it will last for almost a decade.  When you do zoning ordinances, they last for a long time.  So it’s harder for an administration to come in and just sweep everything away when it’s codified, and part of the law.

ABDELIZIM:  And I think the more you engage the community in the initiatives, the more you empower them no matter who is in office [they will be more effective.]

EVANGELISTI:  We’ve seen where the community remembers that we tried this once before and it didn’t work.  And they’re not shy about calling up and saying “hey that thing that you’re proposing, three administrations they said that didn’t work.”  And sometimes, it stops bad ideas.

SARAKAS:  And do you think were getting to a point in our culture where smart growth and urban renewal rises above the political sphere? That it’s common sense for every political party.

ABDELIZIM:  I do, and when you speak about smart growth people may not think it’s common sense.  But when you ask them the characteristics of what the community outcome would be following smart growth, they all say yes, that’s what I want the community to be.  So you can get agreement on the outcomes, and I think there is consensus in this area.  There’s strong policy from the state about smart growth.  Our regional funds, economic developments funds where they’re supporting community revitalization projects, one of the criteria is that they’re consistent with smart growth principles.  So you’re going to see it more and more, particularly in public investment programs, as we know these require public financing, that’s going to be normal course. 

EVANGELISTI:  When we did our comprehensive planning survey, which we put online, something like 80% of the respondents wanted to see industrial and commercial development concentrated in the urban core.  So they recognize that, and it think when the community demands it, that’s when elected officials will follow. 

SARAKAS:  We only have a few moments left, but real quick, are there any upcoming projects that you’re really excited about? 

EVANGELISTI:  I’m just wrapped up in our comprehensive plan, to be honest that’s what I think about everyday.  Gobroomecounty.com/comprehensiveplan We’re very excited about the ideas that are going to come out of that.  We just finished up the hazard mitigation plan for all the communities in Broome County, we’re very excited about some of the projects that are going to be coming out of that.  We’re hoping to do some green infrastructure projects in the next year.

ABDELIZIM:  The big one is our comprehensive plan update, Blueprint Binghamton.  This First Friday were going to have our design studio open again in downtown, but this time focus specifically on youth.  There’s going to be a bunch of interactive exercises such as “where do you feel safe? Where do you feel unsafe?  What kind of park amenities do you want to see?”  Questions that pull from them a perspective that we may not think of.  We’ll also be featuring a lot of essays and artwork from youth students. We’ve been in the schools engaging them, and this will be an opportunity to showcase to the community what they want to see as an ideal city.  It’s going to be great.

SARAKAS:  Are you optimistic about the future of Broome County?

ABDELIZIM:  I am, big time.

EVANGELISTI:  I’m extremely optimistic.  I grew up in this area, I went away to school, and I made a decision to come back.  I love it here, I can’t imagine a better place to live. 

ABDELIZIM:  I think the one thing that can undercut my optimism is fracking. I think we have an incredibly prosperous future and promising economic development plan, but I think a lot of that can be undermined if we don’t follow the right course. 

SARAKAS:  Thank you for leaving me with that, Tarik.  I appreciate that.  My guests tonight were Frank Evangelisti who is the Chief Planner in the Broome County Department of Planning and Economic Development. And Tarik Abdelizim, Director of Planning, Housing, and Community Development for the City of Binghamton.  Thanks to you both for joining me tonight, always a pleasure. 

Speaking of, coming up in two weeks, the prospect of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in New York has sparked a complex debate between supporting the growth of industries that may bring jobs to the region, versus the risk of environmental damage that may harm a community’s long term sustainability.  Can there be balance between the two?  At what point is the risk not worth the reward?  Who gets to decide?  Join me for our next Community Conversation, live Tuesday, June 18th at 7pm.