By the mid-1990s, New York State was home to more than 20,000 vacant or underutilized brownfields— an estimated 6,000 of them located in the five boroughs of New York City. These orphaned properties, contaminated with chemicals from their former uses (such as old gas stations, factories, and dry cleaners) were omnipresent eyesores, environmental health hazards, and impediments to economic revitalization. A bird's eye view would show these sites clustered in New York's marginalized, left-behind urban neighborhoods, with little hope of return to productive reuse. New York State, generally a leader in environmental and economic development policy, was one of a handful of industrial states, and the only state in the northeast, without a comprehensive program for brownfield remediation and redevelopment.
This is a story of how one foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), found its way to, and stayed a 14-year course on, a thorny public policy issue in the crosshairs of environmental protection and equity, community revitalization, and sustainability. This report is not a cost-benefit analysis, a formal evaluation with pre- and post-metrics, nor an assessment of the effectiveness of individual grants. It is an overview of a body of work, with the benefit of hindsight, and presents a narrative of the Fund's choices, against a timeline of activities of its grantees and the public agencies they sought to influence.