How Brown Can Become The New Green

by Aaron Hersum, Tilly Pick, and Eric Grunebaum

They come in all sizes, many flavors, and they can span generations. I am talking about the industrial legacies in our communities that have been left behind for one reason or another.

We may pretend these properties are not there and pass them each day without a thought. We may be used to them by now and have accepted them as part of our community. Kids may play on or around them, though we probably cringe or even fear for their safety as they do. Yes, the homeless may use them to take shelter. If we’re lucky, someone has rallied a bunch of passionate people to turn a legacy like that into something good for the community. It is also possible that local government has had to step in at some point because of a known hazard or risk.

When someone – anyone, really – formally begins the process of doing something with one of these industrial legacies and is presented with complications in the expansion, redevelopment or use of that property because of the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant, that property is considered a “brownfield.”

What surprised me about the definition of a brownfield is that it has a positive connotation; we are taking a negative consequence and turning it into a positive part of a community.

Jerry’s Pond sits near the Alewife Red Line stop in North Cambridge. Although it’s fairly large, you can drive by and not realize it exists. I’ve driven by many times without realizing there was an entire pond next to the McCrehan community pool and playground.

Jerry's Pit swimming-Grace tower in backgnd-smaller size

Currently owned by GCP Applied Technologies, Jerry’s Pond began life as a pit from which clay was extracted to make the bricks that built Boston. Soon after the clay was exhausted in the late 19th century, the pond filled with water and for about 75 years, the pit served as a community swimming hole (picture). However, when a series of chemical companies arrived in the 20th century –  first Dewey & Almy and then the infamous W.R. Grace – they left a polluted mess in their wake. The pond was fenced off to the public in 1961 and now has remained closed for an unbelievable 57 years.

Jerry’s Pond is about a 15-minute walk to Davis Square and adjacent to the Alewife T stop and the Minuteman Bikeway. It’s mostly surrounded by residential homes including about 3-4,000 people who live in subsidized housing across Rindge Ave. I remember seeing a lot of children and families walking around the neighborhood while I was looking at apartments nearby earlier this year. These details all highlight the Pond’s most important feature: its great potential.

Brownfields are about giving a second life to property which has been harmed by its industrial legacy. Brownfields are opportunities to make communities a great place to live. Jerry’s Pond is a loss or burden, but more importantly it’s a miss. Several generations of people have grown up across from Jerry’s Pond with no access to it. That is currently its legacy, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

So where do we start? I think Kate O’Brien of Groundwork USA, provided a telling insight: projects like Jerry’s Pond happen because they become “passion projects”. Volunteers (like our very own Eric Grunebaum!) drive them, and they become movements of people who have reached a point where they feel that something is no longer acceptable. Projects have to reach that point in communities for them to take off, and that requires neighbors to do the necessary outreach, education, planning work and create a pipeline for funding as the project moves along.

Make no mistake, remediating a brownfield is not easy. They require coalitions and collaborations. The typical remediation takes an average of 6 years from start to completion, but can take as much as 10, even 30 years. But, the potential benefit makes the project worthwhile. André Leroux, Executive Director, Mass. Smart Growth Alliance adds a valuable perspective to the process:  rather than think of the planning, assessment, remediation, and development as an arduous one, think of it as a positive experience. Make the process a positive experience for the community and the people involved.

Companies often “mothball” their industrial legacy issues – Jerry’s Pond is a perfect example. But when passionate individuals come together and say enough is enough, get their community involved and demonstrate the positive impact a rejuvenated brownfield can have, no amount of stonewalling can prevent progress. Yes, many of these projects should have been done decades ago, but that has no bearing on the fact that now, right now, is the best time to start the change we want to see.

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