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Greenpoint Locals Debate Use of $19M in Settlement Funds for Neighborhood

By Meredith Hoffman | March 23, 2012 1:58pm
Greenpoint is receiving $19.5 million in compensation from Exxon Mobil for oil spills in Newtown Creek and below Greenpoint.
Greenpoint is receiving $19.5 million in compensation from Exxon Mobil for oil spills in Newtown Creek and below Greenpoint.
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Nathan Kensinger

GREENPOINT — What would you do with $19.5 million?

The state Attorney General's office asked Greenpoint residents that question this week inside a packed auditorium on Driggs Avenue, receiving recommendations ranging from a pedestrian-only bridge to Manhattan to a "Greenpoint High Line."

Locals brainstormed dozens of ways to spend the windfall — a record-breaking federal court settlement to be paid by ExxonMobil, which spilled 17 million gallons of oil into Newtown Creek in the 1970s that has seeped into the neighborhood over the years.

The settlement, reached last year, stipulated that the money be used for local environmental projects.

Though suggestions at the forum were informal, they helped kick off the state's search for concrete project proposals to benefit Greenpoint's environment. Attendees broke into small groups to brainstorm and then presented their ideas to the crowd.

One group suggested a Greenpoint High Line, a pedestrian plaza on McGuiness Boulevard, a major thoroughfare infamous for its dangerous intersections.

Other ideas included a solar-powered streetcar to shuttle people along the waterfront and an "energy gym" that pays patrons to work out while generating energy to store.

Local resident Kurt Cavanaugh proposed his group's dream of building a bridge to Manhattan for bikes and walkers only.

"It's a bridge to Manhattan, not a bridge to nowhere!" he said, defending the idea.

Other ideas included organizing a Greenpoint "greenest block" competition, creating a pocket park at the end of Greenpoint Avenue near Newtown Creek, and soil testing for contamination in every backyard.

And though the ideas are only suggestions, the state Attorney General's office said they will not fall on deaf ears.

Peter Washburn, policy advisor for the AG's Environmental Protection Bureau, said the community feedback will be used to help select an administrator or organization that will accept formal proposals and divvy up the funds to deserving projects.

The administrator will also pair community members' ideas with expert technical groups looking to build structures or projects. 

"A good administrator will link ideas with concrete proposals, will act as a matchmaker," said Washburn, emphasizing the importance of community feedback during the process.

By June 2013, the state expects to select the projects, which must provide a specific environmental benefit.

Project types suggested by the AG's office include environmental education, the rehabilitation or creation of open space, clean energy initatives, water access and air-quality improvements.

The state will issue a formal request for proposals in October, and January 2013 is the latest that groups can propose their projects.

While locals were eager to share their ideas, many claimed the community should have been compensated years ago.

"This is the outcome of decades of people working for the community," said Ethan Pettit, an attendee at the meeting who ran a community newspaper in Greenpoint and WIlliamsburg back in the 1980s and '90s. "The community was pushing against environmental degradation very hard.

"This money is just a drop in the bucket," he added. "It should have been ten-fold."

But Washburn emphasized that the money from Exxon is the most environmental benefit money ever received by the state.

"This was an excellent settlement," he said.

More information about the request for proposals and the process of selecting projects can be found on the Attorney General's website.