Derek Scarlino

Talk of the Town Talks Lead and Downtown Development: Research by Activist Lana Nitti Raises Many Questions

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

UTICA – While some activists in the city are kicking themselves for missing the recent Utica Common Council meeting where the sale of land for a proposed housing complex was decided, local activist and researcher, Lana Nitti, took to the local radio waves this morning to voice a growing concern among area residents.

On WUTQ’s Talk of the Town, Nitti was interviewed about her research into the heavily-leaded past, and present, of the city. In specific, the plot of land currently eyed by Purcell Construction as Nitti had performed soil tests on that site in 2014 as part of an independent research project while studying at Mohawk Valley Community College.

Nitti, whose research has also been the subject of presentations at both the Mohawk Valley Freedom School and TEDx Utica, as well as a piece for Love and Rage, expressed concerns about the sale of the land behind the Utica Memorial Auditorium due to the fact that it was the site of a lead smelter in the city from 1917 to 1955.

Reflecting on a conversation she had with Lana after her TEDx presentation, host Beth Coombs added, “You were saying to me, ‘It’s funny that everyone’s been fighting over this piece of property, but no one’s been talking about mitigation of potential lead contamination in the soil.'”

Map of lead poisoning levels in Utica. (Photo: Oneida County Health Department)

Formerly the site of the Washington Courts Municipal Housing Project, there was competition in vying for use of the same land as Frank DuRoss, local developer and Utica Comets Chairman, wanted to build a sports and entertainment complex on the same site. The currently empty plot of 5.5 acres was finally approved for sale last week to Watertown-based Purcell Construction, which has plans to build a $13 million, 129-unit market-rate apartment complex. The decision, which was 5-4, came after the Common Council reviewed the plans and found that those for the sports and entertainment complex lacked detail.

In a statement after the sale, Purcell’s business development director, Bill Gefell said:

“We now go through our due-diligence period, which per the purchase agreement, is a 90-day period. We will do more investigation of subsurface conditions, any environmental conditions that could exist as well as more detailed market studies, and kind of figure out what the mix of one and two bedroom units should be in the overall site layout.”

In her own tests, Lana found lead contamination at 17000 parts per million (ppm). Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the abatement of soil with lead concentrations over 5000 ppm. It is likely that any environmental tests will bring up high levels of lead contamination, so what’s next?

“I had a conversation with the city engineers and they told me, ‘We’re preparing a report right now for potential brownfields in the City of Utica and that piece of land is on this report, but we didn’t know what was there’, well now we know what was there (a lead smelter), but what’s even more interesting about that report … the parcel of land that they want to develop is also on that list,” added Nitti.

Per the EPA, a “brownfield” is defined as a site where “the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of (real property) may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” While there are strategies to remediate the soil the cost to do so falls on taxpayers when, in the instance of the former smelter, the owner is no longer around to be fiscally responsible. According to Nitti’s estimates, remediation of this site, at $36 per square foot, would cost approximately $1 million dollars. More questions now arise: Are the city’s taxpayers paying for it? Is Purcell? Are New York State or the federal government going to step in via brownfield remediation funding?

The clean-up is also a lengthy process. If after 90 days, it is learned that development is contingent on remediation, do these processes occur before the next recession? Other questions about downtown development come up when factoring in the city’s demographics as the median income for Utica residents is just $31000 per year. How will another recession, as a repetitive externality of economic practices, affect current plans?

We will likely begin find out in less than 90 days, but as the cautious tone of the host at the end of the interview lets on, residents and media should not be averse to asking these questions for fear of being labeled “anti-development” or “anti-the apartment complex”. The development process has come this far already without providing answers, and possibly unaware of the questions to begin with, so there is room to argue that this issue is fair game.

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