By Steve Dwyer
In the brownfield redevelopment industry, everything is filled with uncertainty, as a new normal produces a sweeping impact on industries, bar none.
How much more, or less, is the brownfield industry impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the challenges and even opportunities? Remediation teams and developers might have begun donating personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, to their local health professionals.
Broadly, what the brownfield landscape resembles in a year or two from now, the toll it takes, is a question not easily quantifiable or readily answered.
Many disparate components of this industry are fair game. One that comes to mind is community/urban garden projects—ones either in the works or up and running. Urban garden projects are a brownfield redevelopment strategy that’s an attractive pursuit for the bandwidth it carries to stimulate economic, environmental and social change.
It’s a model that can become a permanent fixture in a metro area or viewed as an interim brownfield, where it serves as a placeholder for a yet-to-be-determined end uses.
Urban gardens bring communities together, as volunteers and even paid workers tend to gardens seasonally. Urban gardens are a great vehicle for triggering youth work programs. The endgame is compelling: Jobs are created but more so it’s about establishing a viable food source for urban “food deserts.”
The environmental aspects of urban gardens help reduce the carbon footprint, while the economics payoffs see food grown, harvested and sold or donated. On the social plane, these projects bring people together and foster community pride.
That last point is a sticky one, particularly under what’s certain to be new and far more stringent guideline governing these efforts. Urban gardens on brownfield are often bustling with volunteers throughout the day.
It will be interesting to see if urban garden projects continue moving forward—within new ground rules that place a limit on the number of people that can be onsite at any given time.
Along the lines of urban garden initiatives, New York City had been in the process of orchestrating two urban redevelopment concepts that fold in community gardens as a component of the blueprint.
A Lot At Stake
In an announcement made in 2019 by Gov. Cuomo, the state awarded development rights and construction funding for four housing projects that will collectively create more than 2,700 affordable-supportive residential units. Herkimer Gardens in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is one of the projects that has been ticketed to receive funding and approvals from the Governor’s $1.4 billion “Vital Brooklyn” housing initiative.
Designed by Urban Architectural Initiative, the building was to be constructed to Passive House Standards, incorporating solar-voltaic shades and a green roof. Interior components were to include 118 affordable homes, on-site urgent care facilities, a wellness center with physical therapy equipment, a food access assistance center, community and recreation space and computer lounge. Outdoor amenities include a terrace on the second floor and another on the seventh floor with an urban farm. According to information from the developer of the property, Federation of Organizations, the total project was estimated to cost $55 million with an anticipated completion date in spring 2022.
It’s been estimated that the Big Apple boasts more than 450 community gardens, most all a fixture of city living. There was a time they bordered on extinction. In the late 1990s, city officials, seeking revenue, planned to auction off vacant lots—including more than a hundred community gardens—to the highest bidder.
That was before a local gardeners coalition mobilized to protect the land. There were rallies, lawsuits, and at one point, a restraining order to block a scheduled auction. Speaking to the New York Times from a bench in one Harlem garden in 1997, a gardener named Mary Emma Harris was resolute: “I'm not going to dig up those plants. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”
These days, every borough hosts at least one urban farm; ones of renown include GrowNYC (21,000-square-foot urban garden that’s filled with vegetable beds made from recycled materials), the Battery Urban Farm (one acre in the 25-acre Battery Park dedicated to growing more than 100 types of vegetables, with all food harvested by NYC students and donated to school cafeterias and food pantries), and Riverpark (located in the Alexandria Center, it uses 7,000 milk crates as grow beds and grows more than 100 types of vegetables).
In New Jersey, many are also championing the concept, including Rutgers University's School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. The New Jersey urban garden movement has come a long way.
Speaking recently to NJ.com, one urban grower who first started farming in Newark in 2012 recalled land as a “drug den, overgrown with weeds. Over time, the effort saw the transformation of a 6,000 square-foot plot into what’s known as the “People’s Garden,” growing squash, eggplant, Swiss chard, zucchini and a variety of herbs.
The transformation wasn’t easy. The principals installed a cistern to capture rainwater off the property next door. They also learned the hard way that they couldn’t create a compost bin without attracting wild animals from Branch Brook Park.
“We had to start adapting to the environment that we’re in,” according to the Newark Community Food System. “You work with what you have and you create creative ways to produce food.”
Newark Community Food Systems Urban Farms has evolved, and so too has Newark’s Beth Israel Medical Center, which opened its hydroponic Beth Greenhouse in 2016, and continues to sell produce at affordable rates at an indoor farmer’s market.
AeroFarms also opened a 69,000 square foot vertical farm, the largest in the world, inside a converted steel factory in Newark. The Greater Newark Conservancy runs a massive farm on Hawthorne Avenue, renting planter beds to interested residents, according to NJ.com.
Let’s hope urban and community gardens on former brownfields can weather the COVID-19 storm and remain vibrant. Each month, expect to see similar coverage from the BCONE digital platform that takes closer examinations of what the “new normal” might resemble, based on interaction with various public and private brownfield stakeholders across industry disciplines—from developer to remediation experts.
Because there will be vulnerabilities lurking, and those prepared with a new vision have a better shot at weathering this storm.