New Jersey possesses a proud industrial legacy, but that legacy has come at a cost. Beginning in the 1800s when our society began the transformation from agrarian to industrial, our cities grew around manufacturing. Paterson’s industrial prominence included silk, textiles and railroad locomotives, while Trenton was a hub for iron works, ceramics and rubber. Manufactures in Newark made patent leather, coaches and lace, while those in Camden focused on pork sausage, candles and leather goods.
Chemical processing and oil refineries also found homes in the Garden State. The shorelines of the Hudson River, Newark Bay and other waterways were dotted with shipbuilders and railroad yards. However, in the mid- 20th century, we experienced an economic shift, leading to an industrial exodus.
The lingering evidence of the former industrial glory manifested as abandoned buildings and properties contaminated from industrial wastes and building materials. Many of these properties, otherwise known as Brownfields linger today. While the preponderance of brownfield sites exist in our post-industrial cities, our suburban and rural communities are not immune. Not all brownfields are the result of our industrial past. Gas stations, dry cleaners and other commercial uses can become brownfield sites.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a brownfield as a property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. Similarly, New Jersey’s Brownfield and Contaminated Site Remediation Act defines a brownfield as any former or current commercial or industrial site, currently vacant or underutilized and on which there has been, or there is suspected to have been, a discharge of a contaminant.
Brownfield sites negatively affect our communities. They lower property values, lead to a reduction or loss of tax revenue, limit economic growth and reduce local employment opportunities. They contribute to neighborhood deterioration and, in many cases perpetuate social inequities. They hold hostage the potential for land uses and services that can contribute to creating more sustainable and resilient communities.
Governor Murphy’s new economic plan – The State of Innovation: Building a Stronger and Fairer Economy in New Jersey – recognizes a need for a robust investment program to stimulate more brownfields cleanup and redevelopment in the state. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) will propose a new remediation and development tax credit program and dedicated loan fund to support brownfields redevelopment. I applaud this new dedication toward brownfield cleanup and redevelopment.
The New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), a corporation of New Jersey Institute of Technology has a robust, multifaceted brownfields program focused on helping communities transform their brownfield sites into community assets. We view brownfields as opportunities to spur economic development, improve social equity, generate jobs and develop community needed land uses such as housing and recreation.
While there are a multitude of environmental, economic and social benefits of cleaning up and redeveloping brownfield sites, the process of doing so can be complicated. NJII’s Brownfields Team has worked with hundreds of communities in over 22 states and in doing so, has discovered that although every community is different, they share some common challenges in tackling their brownfield sites.
Most communities do not have the in-house knowledge or expertise to advance their sites through the cleanup and redevelopment processes. Many have either no, or limited resources, including funding. These challenges are compounded in communities that are experiencing a weak real estate market. NJII’s experience in bringing tools, strategies, resources, partnerships, subject matter experts, and education to brownfields-challenged communities has demonstrated that with guidance, support, and assistance, these communities can successfully transform their brownfield sites into new uses that support community goals and meet community needs.
NJII stands ready to work with the NJEDA and the NJDEP in their efforts to rid our communities of contaminated properties, spur economic development, and improve quality of life for our community residents.
By Colette Santasieri
Colette Santasieri, Ph.D., is executive director of Policy and Planning Innovation for Civil Infrastructure and Environment at the New Jersey Innovation Institute and New Jersey Institute of Technology.