The day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s recent big announcement that the state would invest $225 million to help remake a former industrial site on the Buffalo River into a hub for clean-energy manufacturing, First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey had an observation.
“City taxpayers foot the bill” to buy the brownfield, Casey said during a City Hall meeting. “They should get some money back.”
But any money the state pays to buy or lease the property will likely be used instead to purchase and market other shuttered industrial sites.
In 2008, the city recognized the need for a large tract of land that would be available for commercial use, such as manufacturing. It financed the purchase of 185 acres, known then as Steelfields, for $4.6 million, with the hope that someday the brownfield off South Park Avenue would attract a developer. City taxpayers made the purchase possible through the Buffalo Urban Development Corp., a nonprofit city agency that redevelops brownfields.
Fast forward to Nov. 21, when Cuomo came to town to announce that the site – now called Riverbend – would be the location for two high-tech companies lured here from California.
But instead of the state money replenishing the city’s general fund, much, if not all, of the money from the sale or lease will likely remain with the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. to purchase, remediate or market other brownfields.
“We still have a need to reinvest in these other brownfield sites,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning.
In response to Casey’s question about whether city taxpayers would be reimbursed for their $4.6 million investment in 2008, Mayor Byron W. Brown said that there are more opportunities to clean up brownfields in other areas of the city. He pointed to shuttered sites around East Delavan Avenue and Grider Street.
City ownership of brownfields can act as a bridge between the city’s heavy industrial past and manufacturing of the future, by smoothing the path toward acquisition by a private or, in Riverbend’s case, a state-level entity.
“I think this bridge makes it easier for this kind of deal to get done,” Brown said in an interview. “The kind of speculation that might occur between a government entity like the state and a private entity has kind of been eliminated here.”
Brown heads the Urban Development Corp. board. In addition to purchasing sites that can be marketed by the corporation, the city is pursuing a state designation for the area around East Delavan and Grider. The state Department of State designates contaminated sites as Brownfield Opportunity Areas, and the program provides technical and financial assistance to municipalities so they can evaluate the environmental problems in an area and, after remediation, show off the area as safe to redevelop.
All parcels in a Brownfield Opportunity Area do not have to be publicly owned, but the city would like the Urban Development Corp. to own brownfield sites so they can be prepared and made available for other uses.
Brown said he hopes the city can obtain a Brownfield Opportunity Area designation for the East Delavan-Grider area, just as it was able to do in South Buffalo, where Riverbend is located. Businesses there, such as American Axle, Houdaille Industries and Curtiss-Wright, once drew 3,000 workers.
The city’s first application was rejected, but Mehaffy said the city knows what issues it must correct, which it will do before it reapplies in a few months.
The city also has a state-designated brownfield site on Tonawanda Street.
How much money the Urban Development Corp. will get from the state for letting it build on 90 acres at Riverbend has not been determined.
The negotiations between the state and corporation are in the early stages, said Pamm Lent, director of communications in Cuomo’s Buffalo office.
The Urban Development Corp. will know the designated developer for the property in January, President Peter M. Cammarata told the corporation when it met late last month.
The process of preparing Riverbend for future development has not been without costs, borne by the Urban Development Corp.
Since 2008, the organization has spent $500,000 on a master plan to market the site and spent $100,000 every year for maintenance and environmental monitoring. More recently, it paid for a geotechnical study on the land and expects to pay lawyers to execute a sale or lease with the state.