December 2, 2021

Their property values

Residents near brownfields don’t worry about health; they just want productive neighborhoods

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Helen Whitney holds her 6-week-old great-great-grandson Dante Harper for the first time Friday while on her front porch on Pendleton Street in the city of Cortland.

Nancy White was enjoying a breeze on her front porch rocking chair on a recent morning at 6 Pine St. in Cortland.

She is unperturbed by the city’s closest brownfield: Noss Industrial Park, a 5-acre tract that has sat vacant for half a century because of its past industrial use.

It’s just across the street.

“I don’t think I’ve heard that term,” White said, of the word “brownfield.”

On Pendleton Street, Helen Whitney hadn’t heard the term either, but she’s noticed a change in the landscape of her neighborhood, which also bordered the Noss Industrial Park. Her property value has declined over the 70 years she’s lived there. Transient tenants have replaced families who used to occupy houses on her street.

The decline could be due to a number of factors: the city’s de-industrialization, the flight of jobs and skilled workers, leaving in its wake poverty and joblessness.

But the nearby brownfield doesn’t help.

Bringing life to brownfields

For decades, the properties lay fallow, a reminder of the industries they fostered. Nobody wanted to redevelop them, afraid of what might lie under the scrub brush and memories.

Cortland has 42 brownfields just in its southeast quadrant. Dozens, perhaps hundreds more dot Cortand County. More than 450,000 lie rotting across America. Parts of the city have been designated a Brownfield Opportunity Area, which may create a future amid the wreckage of Cortland’s industrial past.

But challenges remain, and life goes on in the neighborhoods meant to serve these industrial properties. This two-day package examines both.

Bringing Life to Brownfields

Saturday — Brownfields take expertise to re-develop, and few developers in the region have experience with them.  See part one linked above.

Today — The neighborhoods around the Brownfield Opportunity Area are only now beginning to recover from decades of decay. What’s life like there?

The brownfield dilemma

Brownfields are former industrial or commercial sites. Sometimes they’re contaminated, but not always.

Even if there isn’t contamination, said city Director of Administration and Finance Mack Cook, there’s an effect. A city built on industry is left with irrelevant infrastructure and neighborhoods that no longer serve their purpose in the absence of it, he said.

Forty-two brownfields dot 450 acres of Cortland’s south side and southeast quadrant, but there are others all over — 450,000 across the nation.

The city has identified most of the southeast portion of the city as a Brownfield Opportunity Area — an area that is ripe for revitalization because it either had industrial uses or was degraded by them, Cook said. Now that the industry is gone, the city is reassessing whether the neighborhoods that were built back then still meet the needs of today’s families.

That’s what the city is doing with a $359,500 state grant, studying potential uses for the city’s identified brownfields. And it recently got another $200,000 federal grant for the same purpose.

It’s in the second phase of the Brownfield Opportunity Area program, asking residents what they want from their neighborhoods and studying potential uses for these areas. Cook hopes the third phase includes funds to do the work.

Noss Park area

The vacant land off south Main Street, formerly the site of industrial activity, paints an extreme portrait of what characterizes much of the city.

The 5-acre plot is the former site of the Wickwire Factory near Noss Park Road and south Main Street, which the city acquired in 1988 and was declared a brownfield by the state in the late 1990s.

The site sat vacant for a half century. It has the former Rosen Brothers property — a chemical waste disposal facility — on the eastern side. It once was home to the Wickwire Brothers Inc. wire factory from 1866 to 1970, which included a nail mill, netting mill, glass cloth weave mill and several storage buildings, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The DEC issued a report earlier this year on the Noss Park site, Cook said. It identified lead, arsenic, copper and semi-volatile organic compounds in surface soil in the western areas of the site — none has migrated off site — but the solution is simple.

“A certain square footage of the acreage can be remediated by blacktop being put down or the footprint of a building,” he said. “In that process, they’re removing the amount of yardage of topsoil that has to be removed off that property.”

The city will apply in September for another $160,000 grant from the EPA. If it gets the money, the city will clean Noss Park, without new construction required.

A neighborhood affected

The Brownfield Opportunity Area includes South Avenue, south Main Street, Pine Street and Crawford Street.

These are neighborhoods where the striking bones of Victorian architecture hulk above overgrown lawns. The contrast is stark: sinking porches, boarded up windows, and unkept facades.

An exquisitely built railroad station, a hallmark of better days, has fallen into disuse on South Avenue. For decades, the south side of the city lagged other neighborhoods, with more poverty and higher crime. That’s improved — crime and incident reports in that neighborhood are declining, police say, and U.S. Census data since 2000 show the neighborhood is gaining on the rest of the city in household income, educational attainment and property values.

But it takes time for the changes to establish themselves, and Whitney has seen both good days, and bad.

Lately, mostly bad, but now she can’t get out even if she wanted to. Her property value has declined, she said, because of the decline of nearby properties.

“So it’s very stressful,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to sell mine because rent is so expensive in the city. We’ll stay where we are.”

A neighborhood’s decline

On her side of the Brownfield Opportunity Area, Pendleton Street is now home to tenants as well as families, too.

Growing up, Whitney recalls neighborhood children playing together outside. Now, she says, there’s too much “chaos.” She doesn’t encourage her autistic granddaughter, who she’s raised for 18 years, to go outside.

Whitney doesn’t want to sell her house because of how much its value has declined, but she doesn’t want to live in her neighborhood anymore, either. Her two family home is bordered by a foreclosed house to the south and an apartment complex she described as troubled, built about 40 years ago, to the north.

City officials hope the project will gentrify this neighborhood and others — improving property values and drawing families to return.

The city, says Cook, sees a “very significant drop” in the population aged 25 to 55 before spiking again for the over- 65 crowd — also something he hopes to change.

“For a community to thrive, you need people with expanding income so that as the costs of services rise, their income is rising, as opposed to trying to tax a fixed income base that we are now,” Cook said.

“It would be wonderful if we could bring jobs back into this town,” Whitney said.

Creating neighborhoods

To invite this population, the city needs to create neighborhoods where people want to raise families, Cook said.

On the east side of the city, Pomeroy Street homes are largely well cared for and owneroccupied. It has promise, Cook said.

College professors and retirees populate the street, which — now that it no longer has to carry industrial-sized loads — could be repurposed into a boulevard with bike lanes, Cook said.

The area is in the shadow of the former Brewer-Titchener plant, which made metal equipment for the military, bomb racks and parachute buckles and later automotive and heavy industrial parts.

The street runs north to south, connecting Route 13 to Route 11, feeding the Interstate 81 entrances at its northernmost portion and broadening out to serve a residential neighborhood toward the south.

“Is the best use of Pomeroy anymore to be a thruway?” Cook asked. “It was originally designed to promote commerce to that section of town, to allow people and trucks and trailers to move in and out. Now that that’s not moving in and out to industrial zones to the extent they once were, should Pomeroy be configured differently?”

When streets were built to move industrial goods, the aesthetics didn’t matter. Now that that’s no longer their purpose, more attention could be paid to beauty, he said.

“A street for human use is different than a street for industrial use,” he said. “When you’re building a street for industrial use, you’re not too concerned about walkability.”

The goal

Whitney, White — who has lived in her Pine Street home for 38 years — and other neighbors have no cause for concern, Cook said.

City officials attend conferences on developing brownfields and meet with state and federal officials. They just want the neighborhood returned to a productive purpose.

“And to the best of our knowledge none of our industrial sites pose a risk to health and safety and the welfare of the public,” he said.

If the city succeeds, real estate agents like Jamie Yaman can expect property values to increase as well as interest in home ownership.

“People want to be proud of what surrounds them and where they’re living,” Yaman said.

He gave an example: The Aug. 19 Porchfest, in which Van Hoesen Street neighbors welcomed bands and strangers for a day of music, is something Yaman he can pitch to a family looking at the neighborhood.

“That will likely give that a lot of perceived value and values will go up,” he said.

Today’s buyers are conscientious in their search for a house, Yaman said. They seek areas where they can live and enjoy being. So creating areas that are appealing to prospective homeowners is imperative.

“Buyers are really getting educated now,” Yaman said. “Before they buy a house they make sure whatever house they get into is fitting in a neighborhood that will be consistent with a neighborhood they want to live in.”