The Newtown Pentacle

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Green v. Gray, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Me and my mates at Newtown Creek Alliance, and in the larger environmentalist community, are always rattling on about Green versus Gray infrastructure. So – what does that mean? Basically, it comes down to taxes and “bang for the buck.” That magnificent new Wastewater Treatment plant in Greenpoint, pictured above, cost billions and billions of dollars. It also took literally decades to build. Technological marvel notwithstanding, the cost of that thing was borne by raising water tax and rates on property owners, who passed it on to their tenants in the form of higher rents. The plant is, after all, owned and operated by a City agency, the Department of Environmental Protection or DEP. DEP also handles delivery of drinking water, the upstate reservoirs which supply it, and a few other things (noise complaints, for instance). The agency was created in a 1983 City charter revision which combined multiple offices, including the various sewer systems of the Boroughs, into the current monolithic organization. They inherited a chaotic situation, with sewerage pipes in the ground that combine the flow of sanitary and storm water which were laid out by the independent cities of Brooklyn, Richmond, or LIC/Newtown as early as the 1860’s. During rain events, the storm water pipes introduce vast overages of water into this combined system, and outfalls – there are 400 of them in NY Harbor – act as release valves for the increased flow. That means that untreated sanitary sewerage is released into area waterways along with the storm water. It’s why you can’t go swimming at the beach in NYC after it rains, and is part of the reason why inland waterways like the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek are Federal Superfund sites. The Superfund situation is costing DEP money as well, which means that taxes and fees on water will continue rising, and so will the rent.

Gray infrastructure – as epitomized by the 7+ billion dollar sewer plant pictured above – is expensive to build and maintain. That plant can handle an astounding 800 million gallons of wastewater a day, but in the concretized landscape of NYC, a quarter inch of rain falling citywide translates to a billion gallons of storm water entering the system. Newtown Creek alone receives (estimates vary) between 1.4 and 1.8 billion gallons of untreated “combined sewer outfall” annually.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Green infrastructure, on the other hand, is fairly cheap to install and maintain. Green roofs, rain gardens, and open land with plantings either drink up rain or allow it to flow down into the ground and feed into the water table. Additionally, Green Infrastructure ameliorates another consequence of having paved over everything with impermeable material – the so called “Maspeth Heat Island” effect.

Heat islands occur in urban spaces devoid of trees and greenery. Masonry and concrete tend to “hold” heat and radiate it back out. Even at night, the industrial neighborhoods surrounding Newtown Creek are demonstrably 5-15 degrees warmer than the residential ones which are generally well planted. This causes area businesses to spend more on climate control for their spaces, increasing their energy usage footprints and the cost of doing business in NYC. Green roofs, like the one pictured above in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section, change the equation. They divert storm water and keep the structure below the roof a few degrees cooler.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It can be heinously expensive to retrofit existing building stock’s rooftops to handle the loading weight of a green roof, and since there’s little to no tax incentive to do so offered by City or State, most building owners like the idea but pass on it. Given that we’re in the middle of a building boom here in NYC, and particularly so in LIC and North Brooklyn, you’d think that all of these “Green New Deal” types would be demanding that new construction incorporate “Green Infrastructure” technology into their projects. Sadly, this isn’t the case, as everything is false and a deception in the worlds of Politics and Big Real Estate.

Me? I’m realistic about life in the big City, the bottom line, and personally won’t do anything which I don’t want to do unless I know there’s a hefty fine I can avoid by doing it. The City currently meters the water going up the pipe into apartment buildings, but doesn’t meter what’s coming back out. Maybe if we did the latter, it would encourage the developers of 40, 60, or even 80 story apartment towers to embrace the Green Infrastructure concept and lessen the impact of their projects on the combined sewer system. It’s probably possible to engineer a net positive on the outflows, which might mean rebates from DEP for providing capacity. Who knows?

Or, we can just keep on building giant multi billion dollar sewer plants which cause your landlord’s water bill, and your rent, to continually rise.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle


Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at blurb.com for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 12, 2019 at 11:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. Great point here – I hope it’s one you manage to work in where relevant at your new post on the Community Board as well.

    BTW, Bioswales are a thing, and every bit helps….

    Tommy Efreeti

    September 12, 2019 at 11:10 am


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