Recently there has been much excitement about the future of the city of Utica’s urban redevelopment. Downtown has been updated with fresh paint and new facades, accompanied by intense and targeted marketing and branding strategies. The city is set to welcome its newest industry of nano technology, and they are pulling out all of the stops to attract the employees of this business venture to what will hopefully be a hip urban playground when all is said and done. But there is an unspoken threat that could potentially throw a wrench into the city’s plans.
Lead in Utica
For many years Utica, NY was second in the state for rates of childhood lead poisoning. Recently we have ascended to the number one spot. A child can come in contact with lead from a variety of sources including lead paint dust, lead deposition in soil from gasoline and industrial emissions, and lead based plumbing. Although the use of lead paint was discontinued in 1978 and leaded gasoline was eliminated in 1994, residents of many rust-belt cities with older housing stock deal with its toxic remnants. According to this map, Utica is one of the smallest cities in the United States with one of the highest risks of lead exposure. Recently, the Community Foundation earmarked $1 million to the Lead Free MV Initiative to combat this major public health issue.
Childhood lead poisoning does not only hinder individuals, but also whole communities. Children that are considered lead poisoned with a blood lead level of 5 are at risk for a host of irreversible physiological issues such as decreased IQ, delayed language acquisition, partial illiteracy, behavioral issues, organ failure, and even death. These children are less likely to graduate and maintain gainful employment, leaving them reliant on social services for the duration of their lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that there is no amount of lead exposure that is considered safe for children.
Lead exposure is correlated with several social factors including race, poverty, and lack of home-ownership. Lead poisoning is considered a form of environmental racism, with Black children being diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels at more than three times the rate as their poor white counterparts. Over 40 percent of Black children will be exposed to lead at some point. Lead poisoning in the city of Utica is concentrated in Cornhill and West Utica, the two neighborhoods that are home to the majority of the city’s low-income minority population.
Recently there have been many conversations about the future of the neighborhood surrounding the Utica Memorial Auditorium. Frank DuRoss, Utica Comets Chairman, and Carl Annese, Upper Mohawk Valley Memorial Auditorium Authority Chairman, want to see that area developed into a $60 million sports and entertainment complex. While Purcell Construction Corporation, located in Watertown, NY and Richmond, VA, is proposing a $13 million market-rate housing complex that will have 129 one and two bedroom units.
However, there have been no conversations about how the specific lot being vied over by developers was identified by the city of Utica as one of forty-five potential brownfields. A Brownfield Opportunity Area Pre-Nomination Study was produced by the city in October of 2014 referencing this lot and many surrounding it. The official legal definition of a brownfield is, “…any real property, the redevelopment or reuse of may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a contaminant.”
The report indicates that it will take approximately ten to fifteen years to successfully clean-up these properties. The site slated for redevelopment is called the “Gateway Site” and is the home of the former Washington Courts housing project.
Along with the lot that is of interest to developers, there are two other important sites. The first being the site a former secondary lead smelter located at 115 Broadway. This is denoted as “Site 9” in the Brownfield Opportunity Area Study. Chemical analysis of the soil at this lot showed levels of lead as high as 17,000 parts per million, as well as elevated concentrations of cadmium and arsenic, indicating the practice of lead smelting. The Environmental Protection Agency states that 400 parts per million of lead in soil is hazardous to humans. The second is the site that used to house Tartan Textiles at 300 Oriskany Street denoted as “Site 15” in the study. Both of these lots are owned by Charles Street Property Management, Inc. and sit directly adjacent to the lot slated for redevelopment. The Tartan Textiles property was identified in the Brownfield Opportunity Area Study as a top priority.
Legacy of Former Secondary Lead Smelters
In 2001 Dr. William P. Eckel, an environmental chemist, was finishing up his doctoral thesis in which he discovered over 400 previously unknown lead smelters. Not only did Eckel conduct extensive historical research, he also took the time to test soil at these sites and the neighborhoods surrounding them to ensure that his findings were sound. Once his doctoral thesis was complete he made sure to share this information with the Environmental Protection Agency assuming they would be as incensed as he was. Instead federal and state officials decided to bury this information.
It was not until eleven years later that someone decided to have a second look at Eckel’s research. That person was Alison Young of USA Today, who blew the lid off of this story in her award-winning investigative series entitled, Ghost Factories. Young detailed the ongoing and intentional failure on the part of government officials to address these known environmental health hazards. Soil tests were ordered and never performed, and if the soil was tested the results were not shared with the residents of these neighborhoods. Very little clean-up resulted from the exhaustive research of Eckel. The detailed and extensive reporting undertaken by Alison Young and the staff of USA Today has prompted officials in several states to take a closer look at some of these former secondary lead smelters.
Lead deposited in soils from industrial emissions is persistent. It does not rust or oxidize, its concentrations do not degrade over time, and its chemical properties are perfectly aligned with that of soil to form a strong bond. Research has shown lead distribution as far as three miles away from operational lead smelters. Sites of ancient lead smelters show elevated levels of lead thousands of years after they have ceased to exist. Many of the former secondary lead smelters discovered by Eckel are currently situated in residential communities, one of which is located at 115 Broadway, Utica, NY.
City directories available at the Oneida County Historical Society show that the smelter was in operation from 1918 to 1953. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, also available at the Oneida County Historical Society, indicate that the lot at 115 Broadway was zoned for industrial use, specifically with toxins. Chemical analysis of the soil from 115 Broadway conducted in 2014 showed extremely elevated levels of lead at the site, concretely confirming the existence of a smelter for 35 years.
It costs approximately $36 per square foot to remediate lead contaminated soil. Site 9 of the Brownfield Opportunity Area Study, which is the site of the former smelter, clocks in at 42,688 square feet. It will cost over $1.5 million to make that lot safe for a residential neighborhood.
Before the Comets came to Utica, before Bagg’s Square was trendy, before rooftop oyster bars there was a thriving and beloved community downtown. From 1944 to 2007 Washington Courts was home to generations of families. There is a Facebook group for former residents to reconnect and share treasured memories with over 500 members. A study conducted by Hamilton College surrounding the closing and demolition of Washington Courts details the strong sense of community and pride felt by the residents. Many former residents struggled to recreate that sense of home and belonging after being relocated with $400-$1000 of assistance stating, “When Washington Courts went down, we went down with it.” Ironically, the students that studied the painful displacement of residents received up to $5,000 in stipends for their work.
Less than a decade later there are discussions about building a new community right on this very same spot. But it more than likely will not be a homecoming for former Washington Courts residents. Especially if the Utica Urban Renewal Agency and the Utica Common Council have anything to say about it. In a Utica Observer-Dispatch article published in November 2015 about the possibility of a new market-rate housing complex being built on this lot, Councilwoman Samantha Colosimo-Testa had this to say:
“Although the property was for sale for 10 years, it took a number of years to make that area a place where people wanted to go again. With the housing proposal, we needed to make sure that it stays an area where people want to go. The Comets association put a tremendous amount of resources to make that area a place to go and we need to protect that. So we sent it back to the urban renewal to make sure that 10 years from now it stays as market rate housing to protect the district and doesn’t turn into low-income housing, what they tore down a number of years ago. It would be like déjà vu for that area and the auditorium.”
If we want successful and sustainable redevelopment of downtown Utica, we must take an informed and holistic approach. Why do we consider some residents to be valuable additions to the downtown area, while simultaneously pushing out others? How can we discuss developing land while at the same time arguing that the land in question is also a potential brownfield that will take many federal dollars and years to remediate? Is it viable or morally responsible to develop housing in an area with a high risk of lead exposure without first addressing the issue of environmental clean-up? Will the development gains of today be relevant ten years from now if we do not work towards eliminating childhood lead poisoning? Will people want to live and play downtown in the shadows of a ghost factory? These are the kinds of questions that require and deserve serious critical thought before moving forward with the redevelopment of downtown.
Utica is located in one of the most impoverished counties in New York State. The neighborhoods that have the highest rates of lead poisoning are home to approximately 40 percent of the city’s residents. We must consider these lives and these voices as the city evolves, otherwise we will forever be a rust-belt city on the decline. There is no amount of artisan bread that can change that fact.