In medieval times, alchemists dreamed of transmuting iron into gold. Today, environmentalists and developers dream of transforming brownfields into gold mines: viable, valuable properties that can be added to the tax base of states and local municipalities. And when they do, Jonathan Spergel is the person they call.
Brownfields are derelict properties that often teem with hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. To redevelop such sites is to wade into a thicket of mind-bending state and federal statutes. That’s where Spergel comes in. He can make sense of the morass of regulations and get a project off the ground.
Spergel didn’t crawl from the crib dreaming of brownfields, although he did always love the outdoors. “I have a passion for oceans and rivers and open spaces,” he says. His interest in environmental blight developed over time.
A Philadelphia native, he went West for college, graduating from Stanford with an economics degree. Not sure what to do next, he took a job with Peterson & Company Consulting in San Francisco, doing damage analysis and litigation support for complex construction disputes. He didn’t really like the job, but he found the attorneys he worked with interesting. Inspired, he applied to the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
An introductory course in environmental law taught by Joe Manko and Robert Fox changed his life. He was entranced with the cutting-edge nature of the relatively new legal specialty, which allowed him to right environmental wrongs. “I wanted to represent those who revitalize brownfields. They reclaim what is otherwise a blot on a community,” he says.
After earning his J.D., cum laude, in 1993, the unassuming Spergel was asked by his former professors to join Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox in Bala Cynwyd.
“Spergel was in one of our early classes and was just an outstanding student,” remembers Joe Manko, adding that he and Fox have poached 10 or 11 students for their firm in the 17 years that they’ve been teaching. “We were thrilled to get him when he graduated. … We’ve watched him blossom into an outstanding attorney.”
At any given time he might be juggling two dozen different matters. Often he will represent “an unsophisticated client saddled with environmental liabilities,” he explains. “The property may have been from a family business, from an inheritance. And the owner is considered by the authorities to be a polluter with a significant liability. This leads to incredible torment and constant worry.” Spergel then comes up with a plan that leaves everyone — landowner, state, community — happy.
He strives to achieve “societally positive results.” Case in point: his work with O’Neill Properties Group in the redevelopment of the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts.
A military arsenal that dated back to 1816, Watertown was the site of the 47-acre U.S. Army Materials Technology Laboratory (MTL). In 1994, the MTL was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List, largely based on the potential for site contaminants to migrate into the Charles River, which borders the installation on the south. Environmental contamination at MTL, and associated former arsenal properties, resulted from a long history of munitions storage and arms manufacturing operations. This facility was shuttered in September 1995, a casualty of Congress’ and the president’s acceptance of recommendations made by the U.S. Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
To the rescue came O’Neill Properties — and Spergel.
“Brian O’Neill was considered crazy to pay $25 million for a site with significant contamination,” Spergel says. But with Spergel doing the due diligence on the redevelopment and addressing the concerns of investors, the remains of the arsenal were transformed into several hundred thousand square feet of commercial office space, creating more than 500 new jobs. O’Neill Properties, which spent $110 million on remediation and renovation, sold the transformed property to Harvard University for $162 million and netted a profit of $28 million for the two years it took to complete the project.
O’Neill was so impressed with the young lawyer that he asked him to be his in-house counsel. “He’s knowledgeable and gentlemanly and wins the respect of other lawyers,” O’Neill says. “I consider him the leading environmental lawyer in the country for brownfields remediation — and a very dear friend.”
At O’Neill Properties, Spergel was more manager than lawyer. During his tenure, the company successfully secured considerable federal and state funds to assist in the remediation of brownfields sites. But ultimately, he enjoyed being O’Neill’s expert more than being his employee. Plus he missed the intellectual stimulation and collegiality of a law firm.
After 18 months Spergel returned to Manko Gold, wiser for the experience. “I have a much better appreciation of the demands and issues of my clients,” he says. Which once again includes O’Neill Properties.
“I do all my work with Jonathan Spergel, period,” O’Neill says. “He’s my only guy, no matter where I go in the United States. I won’t take on a project without him. Right now, he’s probably working on 70 projects for me.”
For Spergel, the father of two young children, environmental activism is more than a paycheck. He has served as president and treasurer of the Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne, and is currently chairman of the board of the Lower Merion Conservancy. He is also a member of the Urban Land Institute and the American Bar Association’s Section on Environment, Energy and Resources.
“I don’t want to see the environment unnecessarily degraded,” he says simply. “I do what I can to see that our precious resources are preserved so that my children can enjoy them too.”