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‘Brownfields’ Legislation is Key to Transit-Oriented Development

October 20, 2013 : The Boston Globe, Editorial

Dig just under the surface, and almost any place in Boston has a story – and quite often, it's a polluted one. Gurney Street, a now-lifeless stretch of Mission Hill near the Roxbury Crossing MBTA station, is lined with abandoned, weed-strewn lots, some of them fenced off behind barbed wire. Seventy years ago, though, the street was a working-class neighborhood of clerks and bricklayers. And it could come alive again, helping to meet the city's acute housing needs – if the Legislature renews two state programs that have played a crucial role in reviving tattered parts of many Massachusetts cities.

The Commonwealth is full of so-called brownfields, lots whose polluted pasts make them hard to reuse. The term evokes old factories – and Massachusetts, once the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, does have plenty of those – but virtually every vacant lot in a four-century-old city like Boston has suffered oil spills, illegal dumping, or shoddy demolitions that left hazardous materials on site. The houses on Gurney Street were torn down to make way for a highway that was never built, and the land, now owned mostly by the T and the city, has sat vacant for decades. A nonprofit developer, Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services, wants to build 80 or more housing units on the site but needs to haul away contaminated dirt first.

Since 1998, MassDevelopment has provided $65 million to survey and clean up more than 500 brownfields sites, helping to put them back into productive use. Locally, the Archdiocese of Boston got $2 million for Rollins Square in the South End. Olmsted Green in Mattapan got $1.65 million. Both are now housing developments boasting hundreds of units. Dozens of other sites in Boston have received smaller amounts. Brownfields funding comes in relatively small chunks, but that belies its importance as a crucial early step: By assessing the environmental needs at a site, the money eases the uncertainty about possible cleanup costs that may deter developers from making much bigger investments.

Making it easier to reuse sites helps add to the tax base of cities. It also helps advance the state's environmental and housing goals. Sites like Gurney Street – which sits seconds from the T, next to a Hubway station, and within walking distance of the Longwood Medical Area – are prime territory for transit-oriented development, if only developers could be confident the land would be clean enough to build on. Brownfields are largely concentrated in cities and are often located near the rail lines that served industry before they served commuters – exactly where sustainable residential development should be focused, instead of in sprawling suburbs.

The brownfields fund has now run out of money, and a companion state program that subsidizes environmental insurance is expected to run dry next year. Five Boston sites in the pipeline face a loss of funding. The Legislature has already recapitalized the program once and should do so again. Failing to renew the fund would slow or even stop some projects. For instance, while a planned senior housing development on one side of Gurney Street has already received some brownfields money, and is due to begin construction within months, the parcel on the other side of the street, where at least 80 units of housing are planned, stands to lose state aid. Massachusetts has led the way in making productive use out of gritty old sites, and should continue to ensure that their place in the life of the city doesn’t end as a dirty lot with a “no trespassing” sign.

© Copyright 2013 The Boston Globe.