Hearst Connecticut Special Report | Part 1 of 3
of Industrial Wastelands
Abandoned factories leave toxic legacies, discourage redevelopment
By Hugh Bailey, Hearst Connecticut Media reporter
The brick labyrinth along the highway is a post-apocalyptic vision of broken glass, block-letter graffiti and boarded windows. Charred roof beams are fresh evidence of repeated fires, and a crumbling smokestack pushes out from a sea of twisted metal.
This square block of interconnected factory buildings constructed roughly between 1870 and 1920 on Railroad Avenue in Bridgeport presents as stark a tableau of blight and abandonment as a city can offer. It signifies an era that has long vanished. And it’s directly within sight of hundreds of thousands of travelers on Interstate 95, the major north-south route on the Eastern Seaboard.
Inside the ruins, dangling pipes and collapsed floors unexpectedly mingle with signs of life. There are no functioning businesses, but indications of illicit residency are not hard to find -- overturned buckets arrayed in a row as chairs, abandoned sleeping bags. And on every floor, as trees grow on the roof and greenery takes over wherever there is sunlight, nature is beginning its inevitable reclamation.
It is life, but not the kind Bridgeport envisions. This city has a motto: Industria Crescimus, which translates to “By Industry We Thrive.”
Bridgeport, Connecticut | Brownfield sites
Manufacturing built this city and dozens of others like it, powering an economy that made America the richest nation on Earth. When industry left, it took the city’s lifeblood with it.
On this site, Bridgeport made organs. Six feet high, 4 feet wide, this was high-end furniture for the family parlor in the days before record players. The Bridgeport Organ Co. factory dates to the late 1800s and offered “such elegant and artistic designs as the cultured taste of the public may demand,” or so a company catalog of the day claimed.
What started as a basic two-story brick structure grew into a multi-building behemoth. Its growth was as utilitarian as it was ungainly, one architectural style on top of another. As many as nine other companies operated on the site at its peak, many making parts for the organ company and others unrelated, including a corset manufacturer.
As tastes changed, the factory did, too. By the turn of the 20th century, home organs were fading away, replaced by devices that played music on their own. One of these was the graphophone, an early improvement on Thomas Edison’s original phonograph. By 1898, the American Graphaphone Co. had taken over from the organ manufacturer, and that business remained, under different names, for generations.
It was just one of dozens of factory buildings around which Connecticut’s largest city was built.
Bridgeport made guns, shavers, typewriters and countless other products and parts. Hundreds of companies employed people by the thousands. They worked in the heat, amid chemical plumes and the roar of machinery.
Then it all stopped.
The Germans, who know well the loss that comes with the decline of industry, have a name for a place like this -- “a city of holes.” When a city built around industry sees its factories and foundries close, it loses more than jobs. It loses its reason for being.
And it gains something in its place: brownfields, swaths of polluted land and contaminated buildings that today do as much to hold back a city’s recovery as any other factor.
“There are some estimates that say there’s a million brownfields in America... about 5,000 have been cleaned up. We’re looking at a billion dollars of federal and state money on this. So there’s something horribly wrong.”
Justin Hollander, a Tufts University professor
and author of several books on the subject
Manufacturing made America rich, but it also made us dirty.
The remnants are everywhere. The federal Government Accountability Office estimates there are some 425,000 brownfields nationwide spread across 5 million acres. The official list of contaminated sites in Connecticut runs more than 1,000 pages, with dozens of properties in Bridgeport, Stratford and up the Naugatuck Valley.
In the past decade, the country has started to face the massive scope of its industrial wasteland. There’s good reason to think we’re understating the problem, and little question that current policies are not up to the task of fixing it.
“There are some estimates that say there’s a million brownfields in America. Based on my calculations, about 5,000 have been cleaned up,” said Justin Hollander, a Tufts University professor and author of several books on the subject. “We’re looking at a billion dollars of federal and state money on this. So there’s something horribly wrong.”
Cleaning brownfields is expensive. It’s almost always cheaper to develop land outside the city, to cut down some trees and build where there is not, and has never been, any pollution to worry about. This, in turn, drives sprawl and all the inefficiencies and environmental problems that go with it.
As large-scale manufacturing went into steep decline a generation ago, environmental awareness was growing and heavily polluted land took on a new priority. The Superfund law of 1980 took aim at sites that posed a clear health risk, and it enjoyed wide public support.
From there, attention turned to properties that don’t present an immediate hazard, but can impede a city’s growth, whether because of blight or simple disuse. This meant a bevy of federal and state programs aimed at cleaning up brownfields, defined as former industrial sites with real or perceived contamination.
Today, according to most experts, an owner of a brownfield with a viable plan for redevelopment stands a good chance of getting some form of public help and then leveraging that aid into private funding to assess the site, clean it up and get it back into use.
But viability is the key. Most polluted properties in America aren’t the ideal location for a new shopping center or apartment complex. Most of them won’t be turned into parks. There is no natural second act for the majority of brownfields.
And when there isn’t a good development opportunity, there is virtually no mechanism that allows for a site to be cleaned up for its own sake, simply because the community demands it and a neighborhood needs it. The money isn’t there.
“When the market was booming and financing was easily accessible, you had a ton of outfits going after brownfields,” said Alan Mallach, of the Brookings Institute. “That industry has close to collapsed.”
The housing crash of 2007 had a devastating impact.
“The market in cities fell much further than in suburbs, and the market for brownfields fell even further because of risk, the scale, the uncertainly involved,” Mallach said. “The financial sector was unwilling to go out on those limbs anymore. And it hasn’t recovered.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is the main source of cleanup funds. Since the so-called brownfields law passed in 2002, the EPA has awarded some 1,000 grants totaling about $190 million for assessments and cleanups. In the scope of federal spending and compared to the size of the problem, that amounts to ia pittance.
And the methods of choosing winners invite many critics.
“It shouldn’t be whichever site a developer happens to put their eyes on,” said Roger Reynolds, an attorney with Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “That’s completely random, and it’s not health-based.”
Chloroethane, to pick one of thousands of volatile organic compounds lurking in brownfields, is a central nervous system depressant commonly found at closed hospitals and similar sites. It’s unlikely to cause problems at low doses, and there’s little chance for exposure at high levels at a brownfield. But if it did happen, it could be deadly.
And it’s just one of countless hazards, which helps explain how a cleanup can take millions of dollars and hundreds of hours, even on a small property.
There’s a balance to be struck between risk and development, and many insist the system is flawed.
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch tells a story of a brownfield cleanup on the city’s East Side he helped lead as head of the city’s economic development agency. Like nearly every site in the post-industrial city, it had contamination, in this case dry-cleaning fluids, trapped far below the soil and not likely to come into contact with anyone. But it still had to be handled.
Finch said he asked the licensed environmental professional on the site to compare the risk level to an everyday concern.
“They said it would be something like if the guy in the next work station lit up a cigarette,” Finch recalled. “I said, `OK, that’s not good.’
“Then I said, `How many cigarettes?’
“`Oh, one a week.’ “
Like many people with an interest in seeing brownfields cleaned up faster, Finch takes a dim view of the process.
“I think a lot of times we don’t talk about the relative health risks,” he said, “because being out of work is a much greater health risk to someone’s morbidity than someone smoking a cigarette occasionally. I don’t want either one, but sometimes we have to choose.”
“At the end of the day, this is a real estate deal. If it made sense for someone to be there, someone would be there.”
George Naslas, an environmental consultant with Massachusetts-based Weston and Sampson, an engineering firm.
At the most basic level, a brownfield is a piece of real estate. And like anything involving real estate, there is one factor that takes precedence over all others: A brownfield in a desirable location stands a good chance of seeing redevelopment, while the same brownfield elsewhere will likely stay as it is for years.
New York City and Boston have well-regarded brownfields programs. They are renowned for working quickly and effectively to get properties assessed, cleaned up and back on the market. Not coincidentally, New York and Boston have a shortage of available property and an oversupply of people who want to develop there.
Since the inception of New York state’s expansive brownfields program, some 77 percent of its allotment has gone to New York City or neighboring Westchester County, even though more than half the state’s population lives elsewhere.
In the vast reaches of upstate, from Albany to the Canada border, former industrial cities pocked with abandoned factories sit and wait for help. Rochester and Utica will never be as desirable as the Brooklyn waterfront.
“At the end of the day, this is a real estate deal,” said George Naslas, an environmental consultant with Massachusetts-based Weston and Sampson, an engineering firm. “If it made sense for someone to be there, someone would be there.”
And cleanup is just the beginning. No matter the plan going in, it’s not a given that new jobs will follow.
“There’s a fallacy that you get money to clean up these properties and they’re automatically going to be redeveloped,” said Kevin Gremse, of the National Development Council, a nonprofit that works with cities, including Bridgeport, to finance development deals. “You might get a lot of money to knock them down and clean them up, but some of these properties are going to remain vacant because you’ve got other challenges.”
Government programs don’t pay for the entire process; instead they aim to provide the difference between what someone would be willing to spend and how much it would cost to get a project going. It’s the “but for” concept: “But for this investment by the state, this project wouldn’t happen,” saidTim Sullivan, who directs the brownfields program for Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
“We are providing gap financing,” Sullivan said. “Very desirable sites in very desirable locations probably don’t need our help. The focus is on the more tricky places where a modest public investment can create this momentum.”
That approach means many questionable projects stand a chance.
They can pay for themselves many times over. One study by the University of Delaware found that every public dollar spent on a cleanup program generates more than $17 in economic activity. According to a 2014 report, housing prices in the neighborhood of a remediated brownfield can increase between 5 percent and 32 percent.
In many ways, the cleanup is already paid for. A benefit of developing brownfields is they don’t require major infrastructure spending. No need to build new streets, no electric hookup, no sewer extension. The infrastructure costs at greenfields, or sites that have never been built on, can be five times the cost for reused space.
Those kinds of figures mean success stories are not hard to find. Every state has a showcase, something to point to as the reason for brownfields programs to exist, whether it’s the revitalized riverfront in Chattanooga, Tenn., a community college in an old textile mill in Lawrence, Mass., or something as small as a community garden in Portland, Ore.
But for all the successes, current policies leave out most brownfields.
Mallach, of the Brookings Institute, says programs inevitably work in favor of places that are already better off. In many cities, the gap between what someone might be willing to spend and what a cleanup would cost is simply too high.
“When you get to Buffalo,” Mallach said, “you’re not talking about a margin, you’re talking about a chasm. Buffalo has an oversupply of office space, housing, industrial space. It doesn’t make economic sense to redevelop as one of those type of uses.”
So those polluted sites sit, waiting for the market to decide they have a promising outlook. For most of them, it’s a day that will never arrive.
TWO DIFFERENT PROBLEMS
Bridgeport, Connecticut Brownfields | Interactive Map
The city remains bogged down, in large part by
the legacy of all those abandoned factories.
Today on Bridgeport’s Railroad Avenue, there is hope again. A plan is underway to transform the old Bridgeport Organ Co. factory complex into housing, with a grocery store, school and open space on the site.
The highest floor in a building slated for apartments offers a sweeping view of the city’s waterfront in all its postindustrial glory -- the trash-burning facility, the coal-fired power plant, the abandoned buildings. But there’s also the ballpark, the ferry terminal and the university. The South End today is known for blight, but is slowly taking advantage of its assets. A revitalized Railroad Avenue corridor, with its thousands of daily passers-by, is vital to Bridgeport’s growth.
It would also mark a major victory for brownfield redevelopment.
The question, then, of whether the current approach to brownfields is successful depends on what problem we’re looking to solve.
If the goal is economic development, then brownfields programs can be deemed a qualified success. In the right circumstances, brownfield remediation can be a serious driver of growth, jobs and vitality.
If the problem is too many contaminated sites, we’re clearly failing. The number of cleaned-up properties remains negligible compared to the size of the problem.
In the eyes of critics, there has to be a better way.
“There are so many of these kind of sites,” Hollander said. “From a policy perspective, you shouldn’t be doing just a one-of thing, and shouldn’t make commercial reuse the driving factor.”
The nation has staked cities’ revival on the promise of new development, and it has left each community to take on that task to the best of its ability. Some have emerged more prosperous than ever. Most are languishing.
Anyone can apply for the available aid, but only some can win. The market, with prodding from the government, remains the major driver behind brownfield redevelopment, and large-scale planning takes little role.
Bridgeport today is a city of holes, one of hundreds like it around the country. When the jobs left, nothing was there to fill the void, leaving poverty in place of prosperity.
Compared to other post-industrial cities, Bridgeport has an enviable position. Its waterfront, transit and easy access to New York City provide it with the potential to remake itself, to no longer be known as the city of burnt-out factories.
Connecticut has dramatically boosted its brownfields agenda, putting its myriad programs under one roof and making transit-oriented development a major component of award decisions. There is much more money available more frequently.
Still, at the going pace of assessments and cleanups, even a promising city is left waiting. Bridgeport has done well in winning federal and state aid on cleanups and a legitimate downtown rebirth is hitting its stride. But elsewhere, the city remains bogged down, in large part by the legacy of all those abandoned factories.
Their blight defines the city to thousands of people. Even Bridgeport’s strongest supporters expect it will be hampered by its industrial past for years into the future.
Cities with less promise will wait even longer.
Current policies have had some successes, but to make a dent in our oversupply of tarnished properties, something dramatic has to change.
Part 2: Radical Rethink - Germany pioneers a radical rethink of its blighted valley – into a tourist attraction.
Part 3: Icons of the Past - Reimagining Connecticut's Route 8 corridor
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Bailey spent eight months exploring the challenges of cities whose long-ago reliance on heavy industry has saddled them with blighted buildings and contaminated soil.
In this multi-part series, appearing on consecutive Sundays, Bailey illuminates the problem — so prevalent in our area — and finds some surprising solutions.