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An Overview of the 2018 Northeast Sustainable Communities Workshop

By: Colette Santasieri, PhD, NJII / NJIT

The 9th Northeast Sustainable Communities Workshop (NSCW) sponsored by the Brownfields Coalition of the Northeast (BCONE) was an overwhelming success! About 250 government officials, consultants, developers, lawyers, and other professionals descended upon the campus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology on May 23rd for a day of learning, sharing, and engaging around the topics of brownfields, sustainability, and resilience.

Tim Sullivan, the newly appointed CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority kicked-off the event with a strong message of the power of brownfields redevelopment in bringing economic vitality to New Jersey, especially in the state’s distressed communities where many of our industrial scars still exist. An urban-centric economic development model must include a serious commitment to the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfield sites. Mr. Sullivan noted that cleanup and redevelopment of brownfield sites could achieve multiple public policy goals including economic development, job creation, creating affordable housing, preserving open space, and addressing environmental justice issues. Mr. Sullivan called upon all conference attendees to “put our commitment to brownfields on steroids”.

The event’s keynote speaker – Eloise Young, SVP, Strategic Planning and Information Services at Philadelphia Gas Works – gave an informative and passionate presentation on “Gentrification, Brownfields Remediation, and Us”. She noted that the phrase “gentrification” has its root in the word “gentry” – those of privilege and wealth. Essentially, gentrification is the movement of more affluent people into a blighted area causing the displacement of the vulnerable from that neighborhood. Ms. Young posed the question “How do we usher in revitalization without pushing people out?” She offered a few strategies including: supporting local businesses; educating stakeholders; tightening eviction rules; and monitoring change. Another strategy of note included creating informal green spaces (in lots and on embankments), as opposed to parks which attract gentrifiers. We were inspired by Ms. Young’s challenge to mitigate the unintended effects of gentrification triggered by brownfield redevelopment, and in response, BCONE is forming a committee to explore the topic.  Please contact BCONE’s Executive Director, Sue Boyle, if you are interested in volunteering or learning more about this committee.  

This year’s NSCW consisted of three tracks: Regulatory and Risk Management; Revitalization and Partnership; and Resiliency. The Regulatory and Risk Management track exposed the day’s attendees to several interesting and important issues. One hot topic discussed by panelists in the “Annual NSCW Hot Topics for Remediation” session was some recent drivers of redevelopment – arts and culture, food, new transit modes, and the installation of sewers where none previously existed. The “A Cleanup, is a Cleanup, is a Cleanup…Advancing Cleanups” session focused on how administrative requirements of specific cleanup programs impact the basic cleanup process, and the role interagency cooperation can play in speeding up the cleanup process. Another panel in this track presented the evolving role that environmental insurance is playing in reducing the uncertainties and risks associated with brownfields redevelopment projects.

The Revitalization and Partnership track brought attendees through three diverse sessions. One session focused on the reuse of industrial sites in PA as a result of the siting of an ethane cracker plant, seen as an economic catalyst for the region. Another focused on the environmental, social, and economic benefits, as well as the many remediation challenges associated with repurposing landfills for mixed-use development. The last session involved representatives from three non-profit organizations that provide pro bono services asking audience members for suggestions on how they can improve the way they provide their services.

Resiliency – a major concern of many communities – was the topic of the third educational track. The US Green Building Council’s new resiliency initiative “RELi Standard” was presented. This tool is a holistic list of resilient design criteria with the latest in integrative design process used to help build storm resistant buildings, infrastructure and communities.  Another panel highlighted some projects being funded by HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition created in response to the devastating impacts of Superstorm Sandy. One such project is the Living Breakwater on the south shore of Staten Island. It has the dual purpose of strengthening the coastline during severe storms, and pairing resiliency with ecological enhancements. Another panel presented the many different and innovative ways cities are dealing with stormwater runoff. Hoboken, NJ for instance is increasing its capacity to hold more stormwater and then slowly releasing it so as not to overwhelm its combined sewer systems. 

The afternoon plenary session focused on metrics and predictions of real estate and sustainable growth in the northeast. One panelist noted that an effective strategy for stabilizing neighborhoods is to build housing that people already living in that neighborhood can afford, and invest in businesses that can employ those neighborhood residents – as opposed to planning for an influx of millennials. Another panelist discussed New York City’s plan to become the most resilient, equitable, and sustainable city in the world. Named “One NYC”, this plan incorporates issues of inequality and affordability, uses interagency teams to examine neighborhood sustainability and build consensus around development, and acknowledges that significant power of community engagement. The City of Philadelphia’s LandCare Program aka “Clean and Green Program” was discussed. This program converts vacant land to managed green space resulting in immediate improvements on property values. This presentation was a nice complement to the keynote presentation, in which Ms. Young noted that creating informal green spaces can improve neighborhoods for the existing residents without displacing them. 

Important recognitions were paid at this year’s NSCW. Ms. Lee Ilan was given the "Outstanding Individual Achievement" award. Lee, a dedicated public servant, was recognized for her outstanding contribution to brownfield planning and redevelopment in New York City and for her contribution towards the founding of BCONE and its NSCW. The 2018 Sustainable Communities Redevelopment Award was presented to the Harbor Point redevelopment project in Stamford, Connecticut, a LEED-ND gold-certified, mixed-use, transit-oriented development. This project transformed contaminated former manufacturing properties into more than two billion dollars of taxable assets, public parks, waterfront access, and a new community. 

The 9th Northeast Sustainable Communities Workshop closed with a tribute to Charlie Bartsch, the nation's passionate voice and leading guru on brownfields redevelopment. In honor of his life’s work and in recognition of his passing, BCONE has established the Charlie Bartsch Brownfields Scholarship, available to undergraduate and graduate students at colleges and universities in the northeast region who have declared their majors in the myriad of fields that work in the brownfields industry. 

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