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Putting the River in a Rivertown

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A look at the longstanding challenges and aspirations to develop Hastings’ storied waterfront

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If you ask second graders at Hillside Elementary School what they think should become of the currently vacant land alongside the Hastings-on-Hudson waterfront, you’ll get a wide range of ideas.

Everything from a dog park, wind turbine plant and aquarium to an urgent care facility, arcade, and In-N-Out Burger restaurant has been suggested by the youngsters in recent years after Natalie Barry, president of the Hastings Historical Society, first visited second-grade classrooms in 2019 to teach students about the village’s former industrial hub. 

Through photographs, population charts, maps, and news articles, students learn from Barry each year about the continuities and changes in their local community, which aligns with lessons about land use, geography, and natural resources in Hastings. 

“We highlight the changes in the waterfront, which students find very interesting,” Dianna Clarke, a second-grade teacher, explains. 

The same school year as Barry’s first lesson, Clarke became aware of renewed discussions throughout the village about how to restore and revitalize Hastings’ waterfront — an ongoing topic that government officials, villagers, and environmental watchdogs alike have discussed for many decades.

“I thought a real-world application to apply [students’] knowledge of past and present Hastings was to make a plan for the waterfront based on what they thought would be beneficial for the community and meet their needs,” Clarke says. “Students are incredibly thoughtful in their planning and are always excited to see if the village eventually goes with one of their ideas.”

While the students’ suggestions are wide-ranging and optimistic, nothing can become of the empty shoreline land until a significant cleanup of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a known carcinogen, are removed from the Hudson River. Even after the remediation takes place, many hurdles still remain.

Hastings’ industrial heyday 

In the early 1800s, quarrying stone was a big business in Hastings. By 1840, smaller factories began their operations in the ravine behind today’s James V. Harmon Community Center, powered by water wheels. 

But, when the railroad arrived in the late 1840s, everything changed. Running parallel to the Hudson River, industries could now get raw materials to their sites and ship their finished products very efficiently. Hastings’ proximity to New York City made it a particularly desirable location, and it quickly transformed from an agrarian village to a bustling industrial center.

“The real driver of the development in our waterfront was the railroad coming through,” Barry says. 

Taking advantage of the prime location, Hudson River Steam Sugar Refinery began its operations at a six-story brick building in 1853. The refinery produced 1,000 barrels of sugar per day at its peak, but in 1875, a fire burned the factory down to rubble.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have a fire department,” Barry explains. “They were frantically asking for help from neighboring villages, but they didn’t have fire departments either. The fire boat from Manhattan didn’t come until hours later when it was a smoldering ruin.” 

After the refinery, several other industries found success along the waterfront. In 1880, the Hastings Pavement Company started making its signature hexagonal pavers, which can be seen today in some spots throughout the village as well as in Central and Prospect Park. The company remained on the waterfront until 1936.

In the late 19th century, National Conduit and Cable Company and Zinsser Chemical were both established, each bringing thousands of immigrant workers to Hastings. 

Anaconda Wire and Cable took over National Conduit in 1922. In 1955, the Zinsser plant was sold out to Harshaw Chemical. Six years later, Moore-Tappan Tanker bought the parcel from Harshaw and built four fuel tanks that operated as a petroleum distribution facility until 1985, including the last 10 years under the ExxonMobil name. 

Beginning in 1964, Paul Uhlich and Company leased, then purchased, a portion of the site for the manufacture of pigments and dyes. This operation later became the Uhlich Color Company. 

“Some of those buildings were still in use 15 or 20 years ago, but there was nothing like the industrial heyday of the 1900s,” Barry says.

Industries leave, trouble stays

When Anaconda shuttered its plant in 1975, it left Hastings with not only a tax deficit and higher unemployment rate but also a toxic site within village limits.

During World War II, Anaconda produced shipboard wire and cable for the United States Navy, using PCB mixtures to make the cables waterproof and fireproof on its 28-acre property, which leached into the soil and river. As a result, the site was marked a Class 2 Inactive Waste site and snagged a spot on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Superfund list.

“We can boast unique varieties of PCBs not found anywhere else in the county,” former Hastings Mayor Peter Swiderski said of the site in 2013. “Some of our soil is contaminated literally hundreds of thousands of times beyond the acceptable standard.”

The second parcel on the waterfront, referred to as The Tappan Terminal site, is divided into two smaller lots totaling about 15 acres.

Uhlich processed dyes and pigments on the eastern portion of the site, and ExxonMobil distributed petroleum from the western portion. Once both businesses closed, The Tappan Terminal was also deemed uninhabitable due to severe pollution and health hazards. 

The former Anaconda parcel was recently acquired by National Resources, which purchased it from BP-ARCO. Despite selling the parcel, BP is still responsible for remediating the property. 

Uhlich sold its parcel to Argent Ventures, and ExxonMobil sold its parcel to Broadway Stages. In 2016, the western portion received its Certification of Completion from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). In 2021, the eastern portion received a Certificate of Completion as well, which allows The Tappan Terminal portion of the waterfront to move forward with redevelopment efforts. 

Today’s supporting sponsor is Manhattanville College.

Former Anaconda parcel awaits remediation

Currently, the village is working with BP and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), a subsidiary of BP overseeing remediation, to move forward with the cleanup of the PCBs at the former Anaconda parcel. 

In 2017, ARCO submitted its draft remediation plan to the village, and Trustee Morgen Fleisig, an architect by profession, says they are now working through the details with them.

“We’re primarily focused on two issues that are laid out in the consent decree: making sure that we maintain sufficient public access to the waterfront when it’s done and making sure that there’s sufficient native habitat for both land- and water-based flora and fauna.”

Fleisig says ARCO intends to dredge the area with PCBs and then cap it — the typical process to clean up Superfund sites

“We’re still working through the details of what the dredging means to the village in terms of ongoing access to the water because it’s going to be a seven-year project optimistically,” Fleisig says. “We want access to the water in the meantime.” 

While it won’t be possible to excavate every last PCB, they are going to go down to a certain depth where the DEC deems it will no longer pose a threat to any form of life.

“The part of the site where they’re going to excavate most deeply, they’re going to turn that into a wetland habitat, which is exciting,” Fleisig adds. 

Richard Webster, Legal Program Director at Riverkeeper, says remediation discussions are ongoing between Riverkeeper, the village, BP-ARCO, and the DEC. 

“We’ve been working with them to push the cleanup along while retaining elements that we want to see, which are broadly some habitat restoration efforts that accompany the dredging of the PCBs from the river,” Webster explains. 

Webster says during remediation, he and his colleagues at Riverkeeper would like to see a living shoreline that supports habitat prioritized as well. 

“We’re making progress, but it’s slower than we would like,” Webster highlights. “I think everybody wants to move it ahead more quickly, but the site is quite challenging, and there are a lot of competing interests.” 

“You don’t want to push ahead too quickly and get the wrong solution,” Webster adds. 

Additional challenges unfold 

While efforts to restore the waterfront are ongoing, challenges remain. Because the village does not own the parcels, it cannot be the ultimate deciding vote on what becomes of the waterfront area. 

“The only way the village can direct what can be placed there is through zoning,” Barry says.

Typically, Fleisig explains, municipalities get landowners to pay for the consulting work to aid rezoning efforts. While one of the three property owners did put money into escrow, the other two have not, which has stalled rezoning conversations.

In the meantime, the village has decided to move forward on some non-zoning use issues surrounding the waterfront and regulatory concerns. This year, the village put out a request for proposals to hire a planning consultant to assist with the preparation of a Comprehensive Plan Update and the creation of a Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. The latter looks to “provide for a sustainable and resilient waterfront community and prepare for the anticipated redevelopment of the formerly industrial waterfront.” 

“Through that process, we’re hoping to address a lot of the stakeholder issues, even if we’re trying to dance around those specific issues of how big are the buildings [going to be] and what are the uses there,” Fleisig says. 

As conversations move forward, different stakeholders will have their own opinions on how to proceed with redevelopment efforts. The property owners will certainly want a return on investment for their parcels, which may be in conflict with what village residents would like to see for the shoreline area. 

Some villagers may want the area to focus on green space, parks, and nature, while others may prefer tax-generating uses like residential or commercial space. 

Both Barry and Fleisig note that because the waterfront area has been vacant for so long, Hastings residents have gotten used to an unobstructed view of the Hudson River, the Palisades, and the New York City skyline. 

“It’s going to be an interesting conversation when we start talking about putting buildings there because it’s going to block somebody’s view,” Fleisig notes. 

Climate change and sea-level rise add an additional hurdle. Because the land sticks out into the Hudson River, the erosion force during a big storm is noteworthy. Under ice conditions, it is also vulnerable to scouring.

“When you look into the future, those storm events are going to get more and more extreme,” Webster says. 

Webster highlights that there is a competing priority between addressing the soft shoreline, which is more vulnerable to erosion and scouring but better for supporting fish and wildlife, and the hard shoreline, which is more certain to hold back the PCBs but more likely to displace habitat. 

“One concept that we came up with is the idea of having the hard shoreline and then some soft shoreline on the front,” Webster explains. “Then that would give us a certainty that the PCBs would be [held back] but then would also give us some habitat restoration.”

“The problem with that is it could lead to a lot of maintenance costs if there are big storms, so there’s really no easy solution to this,” Webster adds. 

Fleisig says, ultimately, they want the Hastings waterfront area to be redeveloped responsibly with “eyes wide open about the potential for sea-level rise.”

“We don’t want to create an emergency hazard for future generations in the village,” Fleisig says, adding that they also want future development to be revenue-positive, aesthetically pleasing, and attract more people to the downtown. An ideal outcome for the waterfront would be mixed-use, with residential, retail, and open public and green space.

He notes that people are more supportive of development when the economy is doing well and less so when it’s struggling, so that may add another challenge. Traffic concerns and the potential for added students to the village school population must also be taken into account should residential use come to fruition.

“It’s a balancing act, so that’s why we want to have multi-stakeholder input,” Fleisig says. 

Webster believes what’s required to get the remediation and redevelopment across the finish line is flexibility from all parties, including the three parcel owners.

“We’ve made it very clear that we want them to work together,” Fleisig says. “To different degrees, they’ve all expressed interest. [But] we can’t force that.”

A long road ahead

Fleisig says it’s likely the PCB cleanup process will begin in late 2022 or early 2023. 

“When I say [it’ll take] seven years, I’m usually laughed at by people who know that we’ve been talking about this issue since 1975,” Fleisig says.

Indeed, this issue has been full of starts and stops over the decades. Barry says there used to be an entire shelf of waterfront proposals going back 30 to 40 years on display at the Hastings Public Library.

In 2000, former Hastings Mayor William Lee Kinnally Jr. assured residents they would see the site’s cleanup and new development in their lifetimes before adding a caveat — “depending on how long we live.”

Bailey Hosfelt is a full-time reporter at Examiner Media, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ issues and the environment. Originally from Connecticut and raised in West Virginia, the maternal side of their family has roots in Rye. Prior to Examiner, Bailey contributed to City Limits, where they wrote about healthcare and climate change. Bailey graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor’s in journalism and currently resides in Brooklyn with their girlfriend and two cats, Lieutenant Governor and Hilma. When they’re not reporting, Bailey can be found picking up free books off the street, shooting film photography, and scouring neighborhood thrift stores for the next best find. You can follow Bailey on Twitter at @baileyhosfelt.

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