A tree-lined stretch of new bars and restaurants animates Alexander Avenue, where Mott Haven blurs into Port Morris. But a decade ago, the area was a patchwork of antique businesses and vacant lots-for-sale, interspersed with industrial warehouses and a smattering of artist studios. Today, market-rate residential towers rise in the background, and signs advertise new lofts with luxe finishes.
Around the corner, at 329 East 132nd Street, sits Bridgeline Apartments, an unusually shaped, twelve-story residential tower with 91 market-rate units, designed by Aufgang Architects. Boasting an outdoor terrace, fitness center, and views of the Port Morris Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), as well as private parking, one-bedrooms in the Bridgeline apartments are being leased for $2,000 to $3,300 per month. JCAL Development Group and Altmark Group, who have developed multiple buildings throughout the area, describe their work in Port Morris and Mott Haven as part of a “larger planning effort that is transforming this emerging area into a niche market for young urban professionals.” Other local developers have described the wider area as “almost like Williamsburg 20 years ago.”
Rezoning efforts that began in the late 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s opened up former industrial spaces in the Lower Grand Concourse and along Bruckner Boulevard for commercial and residential mixed-use development, luring developers from across the city. Part of doing business in the real estate markets of Mott Haven and Port Morris is contending with the area’s long history of heavy manufacturing. The release of chemicals, petroleum products, and metals, dating back to 1891, has left much of the soil and groundwater in the neighborhood contaminated.
JCAL contracted Brinkerhoff Environmental Services to do a preliminary assessment of the 13,654-square foot site, which up until the mid-20th century had been bisected by rail tracks and used variously over the decades as a train, bus, and auto repair yard. Brinkerhoff’s investigations identified an array of contamination on the site: historic fill, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), metals, and pesticides. Records also showed multiple waste oil storage tanks had also been present underground.
JCAL enrolled the site in New York City’s Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCP) in 2015. Managed by the city’s Office of Environmental Remediation (OER), the program offers economic incentives and a streamlined process to investigate and remediate low to moderately contaminated land. It is popular among local developers and praised for its efficiency and predictable outcomes. The VCP protects developers from legal liability, issues expedited permits, waives certain fees, and provides access to grants and clean, native soil that can be used to fill sites after excavating hazardous material.
New York City’s VCP program is the first and only municipal clean-up program in the country, created to replace some of the activities of the State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program when it stopped underwriting most market-rate projects in the city (the rate of development suggested there was little need to provide additional incentives). In a city where uncontaminated land is scarce, housing stock is in demand, and real estate profits are lucrative, the city’s program has accelerated the pace at which brownfields have been remediated with private sector money: over 700 sites since 2009. The Mott Haven-Melrose area, where the Bridgeline Apartments are located, has one of the highest concentrations of VCP-enrolled sites in the city (Williamsburg-Greenpoint is number one).
As per VCP procedures, Brinkerhoff (a qualified OER vendor) drafted a remedial action plan, weighing two options. A deep excavation, removing all contaminated soil, would allow unrestricted use of the site; a shallower excavation would leave behind some contaminated soil but would be combined with use restrictions such as a ban on vegetable gardens. Brinkerhoff deemed both options comparable in terms of protecting the health of residents and the environment but decided on the latter because it was more cost-effective. In addition to specifying the removal of 3,000 tons of contaminated soil, the principal remedial actions of the plan included monitoring the air for the release and migration of particulates and VOCs during construction and the installation of an impermeable cover and vapor barrier system to prevent toxins in the soil and groundwater from migrating into the new building. The plan was submitted to OER for review and work began shortly thereafter.
In 2018, after three years of remediation and construction, the OER issued the developers of the Bridgeline Apartments a Notice of Completion (indicating that all remedial requirements had been completed) and a liability release. A New York City Green Property Certificate was also issued, with an accompanying, oversized plaque. It hangs in the building lobby, a signal to residents that the property achieved “all applicable government standards for environmental investigation and cleanup in New York State.” Importantly, it communicates what cannot be seen underground: a multitude of new layers intended to separate residents from a legacy of contamination.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.