Monday, August 27, 2007

Roebling Oil Building Watch: Looming Large

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It's time for one of our regular check ins on our dear old friend the Roebling Oil Building, which sits atop the gone, but not forgotten, Roebling Oil Field. As the R.O.B. has taken shape and reached its maximum state of expression, its full height and scale has become quite clear. This baby, which is the work of Karl Fischer, is one massive building, running about three-fourths the length of an entire city block. If you're new to the Roebling Oil subject, click here to find out a little something about this site's oily past.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Future lux condo buyers of this FoFo developer may be well served to read below article on all the problems that are involved in remediated ( toxic clean up) sites like Roebling Oil Field...and may others that are toxic but not in the city records...the old times know and they are dying off, so the chance of a developer getting away with alot are high!!


What lurks beneath

By Ted Smalley Bowen

Published: August 25 2007 01:19 | Last updated: August 25 2007 01:19

Would you live in a house built on a landfill? How about a site where a petrol station once stood? What about in a converted chemicals factory? Or an apartment tower recently cleared of asbestos? When the matter is put so starkly, few people would say “yes”.

But, with urban property prices rising, developers running out of pristine land on which to build and more governments pushing sustainable growth, these are becoming increasingly likely options for homebuyers. Around the world, a broad range of residential projects now occupy formerly contaminated industrial sites and, for most people who live in them, the benefits of location, price and amenities easily trump any health concerns.


“I haven’t had any problems,” says Doras Briggs, who bought into a condominium complex on the site of an old transformer factory and oil storage tank facility in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco. The land had to be cleared of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum hydrocarbons and other toxic substances before residents moved in – “the developer told me he had to dig down about 20ft,” Briggs says – but otherwise she didn’t think much about the history of her new home. As a widow, “maintaining a house and garden wasn’t to my liking,” she explains. Plus, she’s a train buff and her building, Terraces at Emery Station, is right next to the Amtrak rail depot.

No country or region has a monopoly on out-of-use industrial land or on housing demand. Reclamation projects with some residential component have sprung up in myriad settings – on Copenhagen’s waterfront, along Bilbao’s Nervión River, on the remains of Pittsburgh’s former steel mills, in older sections of Toronto.

Many of the newest developments are massive. In Boston, for example, 45 acres of the North Point industrial district – since colonial times home to a wharf handling coal and wood, a railyard, a glass factory, warehouses and light industry, all of which can produce potentially harmful by-products – is being turned into a mixed-use development with more than 300 apartments, green space, links to mass transit and waterfront access.

In Germany’s Ruhr Valley, the town of Duisburg, known for its blast-furnace steel factories, is undergoing a similar transformation, moving towards a masterplan for a liveable green metropolis designed by Foster & Partners, including several already completed residential buildings.

Meanwhile, in London, plans for the 2012 Olympics include the creation of a new district called “Stratford City” east of the city centre, with 4,000 homes (35 per cent or more of them for lower-income residents) along with commercial, community and sports facilities on a vast swathe of land now occupied by waste dumps, used-car lots, warehouses and factories. The soil and groundwater is so contaminated that the London Development Agency has estimated that as much as 450,000 cubic metres will have to be removed.

Supporters of these developments say they will build on the success of smaller-scale remediations, which have allowed people to lead happy and healthy lives on once blighted land. But there are cautionary tales too. Perhaps the most famous is Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, New York, which had been used as a chemical dump before a school and houses were built there in the 1950s. In the 1970s, it became synonymous with environmental disaster after illness and birth defects among residents were linked to toxic spills on the site.

More recently, in the mid-1990s, a group of 16 loft spaces carved out of an early-20th-century factory in Hoboken, New Jersey had to be evacuated when pools of mercury – residue from decades of lamp manufacturing – were discovered under the floorboards. New Jersey’s state department of environmental protection (DEP) had supervised a clean-up after the previous owner, a tool and die maker, closed but it only dealt with the soil and a parking lot and the DEP wasn’t authorised to check indoor conditions, says spokesman Larry Hajna. Residents tested well above federal limits for exposure and air samples from the building were deemed unsafe. The US Environment Protection Agency had the housing demolished as part of a protracted $20m Superfund initiative, a government programme for clearing contaminated sites.

Even locally, however, the scare has not deterred this kind of development. The lot was put back on the market this year, selling for $5m, and New Jersey officials are still bullish on recycling “brownfield” sites into residences. “The only way we can meet the demand for housing is to go back to former industrial sites,” says Fred Bado, Hoboken’s director of development. “The community benefits by having the sites addressed and it has a positive effect on the environment.”

Brownfield is the term generally used to describe land once used for industry but it is somewhat elastic. In the US it usually refers to any polluted or potentially polluted site, though regulators and developers often narrow that definition to mean areas where testing and/or clean-up will be subsidised by the federal government. The most toxic sites are ostensibly handled under Superfund but that budget has dwindled significantly in recent years.

In the UK, brownfield typically refers to any previously developed land, “which means, essentially, that with the exception of a piece of Snowdonia and a piece of Ben Nevis, the whole country is a brownfield site”, says Niall Kirkwood at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Contaminated sites fall into a more specific category.

And the same is true across the rest of Europe, where brownfield can mean anything from previously used land to derelict property to possibly or definitely contaminated land. “There’s no global understanding quite yet,” Kirkwood says. “How people address brownfield [sites] is clearly dependent on the political and legal structure and regulatory overview, if any.”

Regardless, as a result of technological advances and political shifts, most of these developments are now associated with regeneration and economic growth rather than with environmental and health concerns. Early regulations, which “made liability overwhelming and made it harder to figure the cost of clean-up” resulting in “fear, anxiety and huge legal fees”, have been replaced by an array of incentives – including direct government investment, public/private partnerships, grants, tax breaks, zoning variances and guaranteed returns – to tip the balance in favour of investment, says Ned Abelson, a Boston attorney and a brownfield specialist.

Blighted land is often the only available urban space for schools, housing, government buildings and infrastructure projects. Redevelopment has been shown to turn around inhospitable, crime-ridden neighbourhoods. And even small, non-contiguous sites, when grouped together, can ease supply and demand imbalances, says Clark Henry, director of the brownfield programme in Portland, Oregon.

Residential developments on such sites are becoming more common. According to a 2006 United Conference of Mayors survey, housing accounted for 14,189 buildings and/or units on US brownfield sites, compared with 3,992 mixed use, 520 for commercial use, 422 parks and 1,265 “other”, including schools, recreation, industrial and transport facilities. In Canadian cities, almost half of brownfield redevelopment has been residential, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee survey. And in the UK, the government has a target of building 60 per cent of new housing on brownfield land. “It tends to follow the real estate market,” Abelson says. “If residential is hot, then you’ll see [more of] that type of project.”

Househunters tend to like these developments for location (often close to city centres in gentrifying areas), price (sometimes lower than in established residential neighbourhoods) and environmental reasons (since they are touted as an alternative to sprawl). While there’s a big push for affordable housing, market-rate projects predominate. One study found that 87 per cent of residential brownfield projects in Milwaukee between 1992 and 2004 were market rate, as were 64 percent of those in Chicago between 1994 and 2004.

But adapting these sites for residential use can be tricky. The clean-up required to make them habitable is considerably more time-and capital-intensive than prepping them for industrial or commercial use. Insurance can be expensive and hard to get. Some projects stall over cost increases and liability disputes. Even when a site is remediated, there’s no guarantee that pollution won’t migrate from adjacent areas. And, depending upon the degree of contamination and how a site is remediated, uses and activities may be limited. On a site with a protective barrier over the existing soil, for example, digging may be restricted, limiting landscaping and gardening options.

Underfunded and low on staff, many government agencies license third parties to handle site clean-up, subject to standards and review. In the US, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a pressure group, has faulted outsourcing, citing an audit of Massachusetts projects, which found that more than seven in ten private clean-ups needed more work and one in ten needed to be redone. But state officials claim the study sample was skewed and argue that banks’ willingness to underwrite projects on sites remediated by private contractors is a measure of the system’s success. “If a respectable environmental consulting firm that is experienced and insured is doing the clean-up to government-approved levels, this is often sufficient,” Desousa says.

Still, enforcement of regulations can be uneven and developers sometimes cut corners, leaving sites unsafe. And while public health officials are frequently consulted on projects nowadays, there is no comprehensive health tracking for people living in brownfield developments. Part of the problem is that one’s “body burden” – a lifetime’s exposure to pollutants – defies easy analysis. “Health issues can be difficult to pin down. It’s hard to be sure if someone’s asthma came from benzene on a site or buses going past,” Henry says.

“We’re exposed to so many things,” adds Michael Greenberg, director of the National Center for Neighborhood and Brownfields Redevelopment at Rutgers University. “The key is make sure that nothing [toxic] is there.”

Common contaminants include lead paint, PCBs from electrical transformers and asbestos, which is especially likely to be found in old school buildings or factories. Urban brownfield sites also typically contain chlorinated hydrocarbons, which are used as degreasing agents, heavy metals from a variety of sources, including steel and aluminium plants, and gas residuals from heating and other sources, according to Greenberg. “Another big issue is oil tanks,” Kirkwood adds. “If [the site has] switched from oil to electric, check that the tank was actually taken out. If it’s a single-skin steel tank, it will have rusted, and when you try to take it out, it will break.”

Historians and archaeologists are key players in any clean-up, since old maps, deeds, construction documents and archaeological surveys provide critical data on past uses, abuses and accidents that leave a mostly invisible but potentially problematic legacy. “The historian drives the whole process,” says Keith Johnson, an environmental engineer with Haley & Aldrich, which is handling the North Point remediation. “We consult historical maps, get information on spills near the site and about underground storage. Old [fire insurance] maps tell you a lot.” (Of course, this system isn’t perfect. At the factory in Hoboken, for example, official records didn’t indicate that it had once produced mercury-vapour lamps so inspectors failed to test for the substance.)

Once a site has been analysed, it is cleaned. Contaminated soil might be removed, encapsulated with clay or covered with a fabric barrier, new soil and landscaping. Vapour from soil and groundwater can be a challenge because “few regulatory agencies have yet established a comprehensive approach as to when, where and how to develop on property with shallow volatile contamination”, says Robert Hersh, brownfield programme director at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. But there are established protective measures, such as venting basement levels separately.

Problems are usually disclosed in public hearings involving community members but these tend to be held in the early stages of multi-year projects and concluded well before homes are marketed. As a result, prospective buyers or renters may be unaware of a site’s history. Past oil spills seldom feature in sales brochures and questions about safety are rarely raised. “In my experience, individual buyers have a tremendous faith in the societal forces that wouldn’t allow you to build a house if wasn’t safe,” says James Hamilton, a lecturer in environmental policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At North Point, for example, only one new owner, an environmental engineer, has asked about soil conditions.

The cognoscenti are less trusting. “If I were buying, I would want to understand the nature of the contamination, how it was remediated and regulatory closure,” Abelson says. “I’d make a lot of inquiries. But unless a property has a reputation, it’s not on the buyer’s standard checklist.”

With new developments, “there will be records of any environmental clean-up”, Kirkwood says. “Make sure the authorities have signed off. Know your history of what’s in the ground, water and adjacent sites – particularly if you’re downhill. Has there been soil capping? Is there continuing maintenance of vapour extraction? Know the levels – not just the legal limits but what is safe.”

Experts agree that we have come a long way since Love Canal, with widespread reforms and raised public awareness. But, with brownfield development on the rise, those people living on blighted land should be aware of what they’re getting into.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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