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June 11, 2024

Tom Walsh Interviewed for Buffalo Business First Article on Success of Brownfield Cleanup Program in Western New York

Tom Walsh, partner, was interviewed for the Buffalo Business First article “Brownfield Billions: Once a Bane, Polluted Land Has Led to a Development Boom” about how New York State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program contributed to Western New York’s development Renaissance. 

Contaminated land was once a major deterrent to development projects in Western New York, but it has since become a valuable asset thanks to the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. Today, developers actively seek out contaminated sites to take advantage of the program’s tax incentives. Since its introduction in 2003, the program has facilitated the completion of over 150 projects in the region, contributing significantly to the revitalization of areas like Buffalo and Lackawanna by repurposing former industrial sites into thriving commercial and residential hubs.

The Brownfield Cleanup Program has played a crucial role in transforming Buffalo’s industrial landscape. Iconic projects such as the redevelopment of the Bethlehem Steel plant into Renaissance Commerce Park and the conversion of old factories into high-end apartments exemplify its impact. This initiative encourages developers to rehabilitate existing structures, thereby curbing urban sprawl. While the program has been a significant factor in the city’s revitalization, recent tightening of the program’s requirements suggests its peak period may be over.

Tom noted that New York State’s initial approach to contaminated land was punitive, holding property owners financially responsible for cleanups, which led many to abandon or avoid such sites. “In the ’80s and ’90s, you ended up with a lot of properties in Buffalo, I’d charitably call them mothballed. People suspected they were contaminated but didn’t want to find out,” said Tom. 

Over time, the state shifted to a more incentive-based strategy, culminating in the Brownfield Cleanup Program. This shift not only provided substantial tax credits but also legal assurances to developers. The program has made previously unattractive projects viable. Tom said, “Because of that tangible property credit, you can grab the brass ring based on how big of a project you’re building.” This financial and legal support has made lenders more willing to back projects on Brownfield sites.

Despite its success, the Brownfield Cleanup Program is experiencing a slowdown. Factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, high interest rates, and increased construction costs have contributed to this decline. Additionally, the state’s attempts to manage the program’s popularity have led to stricter application processes and increased fees, making it less accessible for smaller projects. Tom said, “They’re further burdening the project, which makes it a lot less attractive to do.” 

While the program has addressed many of the most straightforward Brownfield sites, future developments will likely focus on more challenging properties. As the program evolves, it will continue to play a role in addressing unexpected contamination issues and supporting redevelopment, but its golden era may be drawing to a close.

Buffalo Business First subscribers can read the full article here.

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