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Small spending makes big difference for pollution cleanup in Williamsburg

City brownfield grants contrast sharply with state tax credit spending

A racing engine design company will be setting up shop on a long-vacant Williamsburg lot this next year, with a nudge from a small city grant and some crucial cooperation from the state.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg shows off what $85,000 can help buy: new building on a long-vacant lot. Photo: Allison Maier

Ayton Performance, an engineering firm that has worked with clients such as GM, Porsche, and, currently, Honda Racing, is planning to open a new facility next summer at 105 Metropolitan Avenue, after dealing with the pollution left over from the area’s past. That includes metals and pesticides, as well as dregs from a gas station, according to Daniel Walsh, director of the city Office of Environmental Remediation. The 25-foot-wide lot, sandwiched between the Hollander & Lexer men’s boutique and a lighting warehouse, has sat vacant since the mid-1980s.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ayton owner and engineer Ethan Bregman announced the plans in front of the construction site Monday afternoon. Citywide, 53 sites are now in various stages of transformation with the help of New York City’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.

Bloomberg deemed the project a meeting of “Silicon Alley” and “Gasoline Alley,” as well as an example of the city’s efforts to redevelop blighted areas and create new jobs in the process. Brownfields are sites where environmental contamination has previously deterred new building.

The city’s brownfields program is the first municipal effort of its kind, launched in January 2011 as part of the Bloomberg administration’s PlaNYC 2030, a set of wide-ranging sustainability initiatives introduced in his second term in office. Through the program, developers can receive up to $60,000 to help pay for investigation of potential pollution and any resulting cleanup, as well as bonuses for meeting the most stringent remediation standards and additional funds for projects located in state-designated Brownfield Opportunity Areas such as the Gowanus Canal and Newton Creek.

In total, the Williamsburg project is expected to receive about $85,000. Bregman paid $750,000 for the lot three years ago.

Bloomberg also announced that a 2010 agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will be extended through 2016, granting developers liability protection from the state if they complete a cleanup through the city’s brownfield program.

The city’s celebration of its low-cost nudges toward cleanup stands in contrast to the big spending under a state tax credit program recently extended by the state legislature. Since 2007, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance, $744 million in taxpayer funds have gone to developers claiming the tax credits, much of it for projects, such as the New York Times tower in midtown Manhattan, that likely would have proceeded with or without the credit. In total, calculates Environmental Advocates of New York, the program has spent $1 billion since its inception in 2003.

“It’s kind of become a giveaway program rather than a redevelopment program,” said Alison Jenkins, a program director for Environmental Advocates.

The main issue, as detailed in a recent report from the group, is that the state’s tax credit spending is not primarily promoting the redevelopment of industrial sites in economically blighted communities, one of the original objectives of the law.

The tax credits were initially scheduled to expire in March 2015, effectively cutting off new projects starting this year since credits can only be claimed once cleanup is complete. New Partners for Community Revitalization, a nonprofit that helps facilitate brownfields cleanup in lower-income neighborhoods, had suggested that the moment had arrived to reevaluate the tax credit, according to Jeff Jones, a consultant with the organization. The organization sees the tax credit program, in its current form, as “bad policy and not a good use of taxpayer money,” he said in an email.

In June, the Senate and Assembly passed a bill that would extend the tax credit deadline to December 2015. It remains to be seen whether Gov. Cuomo will sign it.

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