The Genesee River is getting a lot of attention lately. Part of transforming downtown includes a multi-million dollar project to renovate downtown parks and open spaces along the river.
However, just blocks from the proposed redevelopment lies a site residents says officials aren’t handling as well.
The site in question? It’s located just off of Exchange street, towards the end of Flint. It’s an old oil refinery that operated in the PLEX (Plymouth-Exchange) area from 1866 to 1935. It was first owned by Vacuum Oil then Exxon but was left abandoned almost a century ago.
It’s a battle that’s been brewing for years, residents say, as Exchange St becomes an extended corridor to downtown. Corn Hill has been heavily redeveloped and there is new retail and restaurants along the riverfront. The neighborhood is surrounded by change; on the other side, along Genesee Street, the University of Rochester is heavily investing in student housing.
And that’s likely what will go up the old refinery spot to residents’ dismay. They say they want a hardware store or grocery store instead.
“There will be lots of newly cleaned-up land available for real estate development,” read a statement from the neighborhood association. “New apartments for U of R students and faculty, parking lots, maybe a new road, new traffic patterns requiring roadwork, new business opportunities. We hope the neighborhood will get a hardware store and a supermarket, and not just a lot of Arby’s, MacDonalds and other fast food franchises and more convenience stores.”
That kind of use would require level 1 clean-up of the site, according to Dorian Hall, the association’s president. Level 1 is the most thorough form of clean-up but he says developers have verbally committed to a level four clean up.
“Last July, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation presented the levels of cleanup possible to PLEX and encourage them to advocate for the highest level possible,” he said.” Now clean-up proposals are on the table, and PLEX has discovered that the City and Developers are proposing the lowest cleanup possible.
Level four, he says, is just capping the contaminated areas. As a result, the student housing placed there would be more apartment-like. The first floor would feature a lobby and probably no living space since the form of clean-up wouldn’t allow for this use on the ground.
But it’s more than preparing the site for the neighborhood’s uses, Hall says. He suggests a clean-up that would protect the waterway and facilitate it’s long-term usage:
“Besides my issues with this being unmarked and the lack of general awareness I would also highlight that this is along the water. It’s not just in the middle of the city, do a halfway job and cover it with pavement and forget about it. If it’s not cleaned up well, god knows they’ll fight us even more to do it over again. A halfway cleanup of a cancer pit along a river is an injustice for hundreds of miles and hundreds of years.”
That stretch along the river is sometimes used for recreational exercise. People walk, run, bike it. Residents argue part of the site should be redeveloped to facilitate this usage, especially in light of investment for similar activities just down the road.
Carolyn Del Vecchio moved to the area just a few months ago. She said she’s concerned by the lack of signage indicating the space is contaminated presently.
“I moved in and took my dog for a walk,” she said. “I ended up down by the river by this really cool building that has graffiti and it’s just a really interesting spot to take pictures and theres’ no signs anywhere that say like ‘Warning. There’s lead in the soil’ or ‘beware this is an old oil refinery’ or anything like that,” she said. “It’s right along the river so literally anyone walking by and there were, there were people who continued to jog by. I’m sure U of R students because it’s right on that river trail and there’s even a pathway that goes down near the building site that is one of the most contaminated site in question.”
About a month ago, neighborhood leaders gathered to address the issue publicly. The group has backing from the the local Sierra Club chapter and discussed the issue being environmental injustice.
“All of these issues are connected in one way or another,” said Peter Debes, head of the local Sierra Club chapter. The chapter is backing the association, but doing so in a quieter way. “The way we exploit Earth and abuse the resources here is connected to the way we exploit people themselves. Of course the history of our country has a long history of exploitation of African people and people of color. A lot of the issues we face today are a result of that history and thus connected. To be effective in our environmental work we must address those issues too.”
“People of color were prevented from living in certain areas of the city for many years, redlining,” he continued. “Redlining restricted them to places that weren’t preferred or where nobody else wanted to live because often they were right next to industrial areas, toxic sites or heavy pollution. And so that was the injustice. They weren’t able to get mortgages to to buy homes.”
“I think we’re gaining traction. I think people who live here and are invested, they go to meetings and know, but then you have people come in just to work at the corner store or something and I think we’re always looking at we wish we had a more unified voice. But a lot of that is poverty and resources too,” said Del Vecchio.
“There is no excuse for a cleanup of this long-endured Brownfield in Rochester to be anything but the best cleanup possible,” says a statement from the group. Residents encourage people who want to learn more to visit the association’s website.