Chatham, NJ- New Jersey, “The Garden State,” is home to acres of parks, farmland and reservations. The Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge and Passaic River are examples of these pristine locations. However, New Jersey is also the most densely populated state in the U.S. with overflow from New York City leading to increasing development in New Jersey such as the enormous sports complexes in the meadowlands.
Situated in the metropolitan area, New Jersey struggles with the balance between industrial development and protecting its natural areas. One solution to this density issue in New Jersey to to look at remediating past mistakes. Former industrial or commercial sites affected by environmental contamination, known as "Brownfields," are perceived by environmental scientists as a huge issue. However, these Brownfields can and should be seen by developers and zoning committees as opportunities for rebuilding natural land.
One Brownfield success story in New Jersey is a prime example for how future remediation should be dictated. Snyder Field Park in Berkeley Heights was once an abandoned fuel depot. in 2003, Union County and Berkeley Heights Township cooperated to purchase the property for public use for a total of $13 million.
The park was constructed with funding from the Union County Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund, and a New Jersey Green Acres grant. Snyder Park occupies part of a 17-acre piece of land that formerly housed a plastics factory and a fuel depot. As a condition of the purchase, the previous owners (Shaw Plastics company, as well as Barry Oil Service and Duffy Fuels) cleaned up environmental hazards on the site at no cost to the public.
The Freeholder board voted in 2005 for the PMK Group of Cranford, which specializes in environmental services, to operate the remediation of the Snyder Avenue property in Berkeley Heights. The multi-use county park opened in 2010 after remediation of the soil to remove oil and other contaminates and the construction of a multi-sport turf field (with lighting and bleachers), baseball field, playground, walking trails and parking.
Union County Freeholder Chairman Daniel P. Sullivan, who signed the agreement to purchase the land in 2003, said, “This is one of the best projects we’ve ever done. It shows how a municipality and the county can work together. This was a fuel depot and plastics factory. It could have been high density housing….(look at) how much can be accomplished when we all work together.”
In a Union County press release, Union County Alliance president stated, “Brownfields have become critical resources in Union County. The (New Jersey Green Acre) grant award (helped) make it possible to reclaim land for economic development.”
New Jersey’s population density and overall lack of space for development has begun to spur desire for Brownfield remediation and redevelopment of old land. The remediation of these sites in the proper way allows for protecting local health and environment (including soil and water safety), opening up new usable land, and the economic benefit of using the land for development.
In the case of Snyder Field Park, the taxpayers had no significant increase in costs and the surrounding area was blessed with a state-of-the-art park and sports complex. Now, rather than a site with the threat of causing environmental and health risks, the park is home to club and youth soccer teams, baseball clinics and open public use.
Fifteen miles north of Snyder is another Brownfield with its fate still undecided. Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains is home to a 673,700 square foot Kirkbride Building on 743 acres of land.
Originally opened on Aug. 17, 1876, the hospital was home to hundreds of patients and quickly grew to accommodate thousands suffering from PTSD, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. As de-institutionalization and drugs capable of relieving psychotic disorders become more prevalent, the hospital saw a huge decline in patients.
The state-run mental institution quickly deteriorated from a sanctuary meant to promote treatment and have a curative effect into an overcrowded and underfunded insane asylum. The decision to close Greystone came about in 2000 because of concerns for the aging buildings and due to negative press it was receiving.
Today, the entirety of the old Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital is abandoned and deteriorating. Morris County purchased approximately 300 acres of the Greystone Park Psychiatric Center property in 2001 for one dollar, with the stipulation that it would clean up asbestos and other environmental hazards on the site within its decaying buildings. When this land was sold, a law was also passed that Greystone land cannot be used for any purpose other than recreation and conservation, historic preservation or farmland preservation.
Many have been fighting the demolition of the building due to its historic significance. The state, however, is also determined to demolish the building and turn it into recreational space to build upon Central Park of Morris County, which surrounds the hospital. The reason the government gave for tearing Greystone down was that anything else is “economically not feasible.”
In addition, they claimed the building is “too far gone to save.” Before demolition begins, an environmental remediation process must be conducted, removing asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous material from the site.
“The Christie administration is committed to converting the property to open space for the public to enjoy," Joseph Perone, communications director for state department of the treasury, said. "We discussed the (preservation) group’s concerns because we thought they were worth exploring. However, we concluded that the financial risk of preserving or rehabilitating the Kirkbride Building is insurmountable.”
Will Needham, the vice-president of Preserve Greystone quoted Winston Churchill saying, “ ’At first we shape our buildings, and thereafter, they shape us,’ What type of legacy are we leaving behind if we bulldoze all of our historic buildings?”
This question raises the importance of using this precious remediated land in the right way, whether that means preserving history, restoring park space, or creating residential or commercial spaces.
The process to turn Brownfields into “goldfields” is one that is taking shape throughout New Jersey. Harrison is home to one Brownfield success story, but also many other abandoned lots and factories that pose a threat to the local environment.
Red Bull Arena, home to Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls, was built on land bought by the private company Red Bull GmbH that was a Hudson County Brownfield, housing abandoned warehouses.
“This area was a blighted, abandoned collection of warehouses on contaminated soil, which has been cleaned up," Erik Stover, former managing director of the New York Red Bulls, said. "The stadium is phase one, which will be followed by the building of useful housing and retail.”
Stover’s comment is insightful to the aspirations of Brownfield Remediation across New Jersey; improving one site with the hope of it sparking more remediation and development action. The stadium is a cornerstone for redevelopment in the cities of New Jersey, but also a vivid example of how Brownfield Remediation can improve the environment, economy, and city life.
New Jersey Monthly describes Harrison as the “latest hotbed for urban redevelopment” with “redevelopment plans to transform the Hudson County town’s blighted industrial section into a gentrified neighborhood.”
The warehouses that besiege the surroundings of the shiny arena are also representative of the work that still needs to be done. The success of turning Brownfields into recreational, residential, and commercial sites has been widely examined. However, it’s important to avoid past mistakes of continuing the cycle of destroying and repairing land through profligate development.
Instead, with these new projects, developers, city planners and environmental agencies must work together to redevelop land and create a better New Jersey. Brownfields should be seen as fields of dreams to repair mistakes of the past and create a more sustainable future.
Editor's note: Luke Malanga is a scholastic contributor to TAP into Chatham. He is about to complete his junior year at Chatham High School.