Faculty Profile

Margaret Dewar
July 1, 2006

Margaret Dewar is the Emil Lorch Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. She directs the Detroit Community Partnership Center through which University of Michigan faculty and students work with community-based organizations and city agencies on community-identified neighborhood issues. Dewar is also faculty director of the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning, whose mission is to involve faculty, students, staff, and community partners in learning together through community service and civic participation in a diverse democratic society. She and her students have worked on brownfield redevelopment with numerous organizations in Detroit and Flint.

Dewar’s research is concerned with American government effectiveness in intervening in microeconomic systems to deal with economic distress such as troubled industries, declining regions, distressed cities, and poverty. She has written books and articles on industrial policy, rural economic development programs, and urban revitalization. Her current research focuses on ways to address the barriers to equitable redevelopment of older industrial cities. She is writing about systems for moving tax-reverted property to new uses, the role of place-committed coalitions in redevelopment of brownfields, and indicators of early neighborhood decline and revitalization that can facilitate public intervention.

Dewar has a Ph.D. in Urban Studies and Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master of City Planning from Harvard University. She received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College.

Land Lines: How did you become involved in and concerned about brownfield redevelopment?

Margaret Dewar: I had done quite a lot of research on the effects of state and local economic development incentives on business location and expansion decisions. I also had taught courses where students worked on plans for urban redevelopment with nonprofit organizations in Detroit.

The calls for subsidies for brownfield redevelopment grew louder in the mid-1990s as states reformed their laws about cleanup requirements and liability. Given my background in economic development and urban redevelopment, I thought those calls sounded inauthentic. The campaigns for cleanup subsidies were essentially claiming that if the subsidies were provided, redevelopment of contaminated property would occur, implying that the only barrier to land reuse was the dirty dirt.

However, urban redevelopment is a very complex process that involves the assembly of land owned by many people, relocation of residents, demolition of structures, removal and replacement of infrastructure, and adherence to or release from regulatory restrictions and requirements—to name a few of the issues. Contamination could not be the only barrier, and, I thought, it was not even likely to be the most important one.

Further, state and local incentives for economic development rarely change business location and expansion decisions. I suspected that brownfield incentives would have a similar effect. Therefore, I started to do research on the determinants of brownfield redevelopment to place this kind of development in the broader urban redevelopment context.

Land Lines: How has your brownfield research evolved over the last decade?

Margaret Dewar: As I watched community development corporations (CDCs) in Detroit struggle with redevelopment, I became interested in whether place-committed coalitions were more or less effective in brownfield redevelopment than other kinds of developers.

Place-committed coalitions are the alliances of CDCs, nonprofit housing corporations, neighborhood organizations, and determined residents who are going to stay in place, no matter what. Unlike many other developers or businesses, they will not move to the suburbs because development is easier and more profitable there. They are often the only developers interested in the poorest neighborhoods, and any hope for a better physical environment in those places rests with them. Unlike private developers, they are not seeking especially profitable redevelopment projects; if they can break even, much of the return on their investment is seen in the creation of a better neighborhood.

When place-committed coalitions succeed in redevelopment, they may create market conditions that are attractive to private developers and therefore spur further redevelopment, or they may demonstrate market potential through bellwether projects. As a result, nonprofit developers are especially important in making urban redevelopment succeed.

However, I found that these coalitions were rarely successful in brownfield redevelopment, although development on contaminated land did not seem particularly different from other kinds of redevelopment. Now most of my own research projects and quite a few of the student projects I supervise are concerned with factors that lead to positive reuse of abandoned property in cities, especially reuse by nonprofit developers.

Land Lines: How do you involve your students in this work?

Margaret Dewar: I get many research ideas from working with CDCs, nonprofit housing corporations, and public agencies on plans for brownfield reuse, and I am able to bring these ideas into planning practice on specific projects. Twice each year I teach a course where advanced urban planning students develop plans with organizations working on strengthening their city neighborhoods and help advance the organizations’ efforts.

For example, my students and I worked with the Genesee County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Genesee County Land Bank to inventory brownfields in Flint, Michigan. We also helped to prioritize sites for attention based the goals of the BRA and the land bank, which are now following up on the recommendations in the plan with a neighborhood nonprofit and a group of diverse property owners.

Another team of students worked with a neighborhood nonprofit organization in southwest Detroit to identify brownfields and determine which sites have the greatest priority for reuse. Although the staff praised the plan, the organization has not been able to act on the recommendations. The contrast in these two experiences, along with the literature on determinants of nonprofit developers’ success, suggests numerous hypotheses about what helps and hinders the reuse of brownfield sites in such situations.

Land Lines: What is your most recent project with the Lincoln Institute?

Margaret Dewar: With Kris Wernstedt at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, I am looking at some of these hypotheses about why CBOs are successful or not in reusing vacant, abandoned, and contaminated property. Kris is looking at the work of CBOs in Baltimore, Portland, and Denver, and I am studying their reuse of such property in Detroit, Cleveland, and Flint. Because the demand for land in my set of three cities is similar, the comparison holds the market constant and promises to reveal institutional, political, and legal factors that are important in CBOs’ results.

The three midwestern cities differ in the strength of their nonprofit development sectors. Cleveland has an active network of nonprofit developers that have constructed thousands of units of housing over the last 15 years. Detroit has a maturing nonprofit development sector that is growing in its capacity to do projects, but Flint has very little such activity.

These differences can help reveal factors that matter and the ways they matter in redevelopment success. For instance, a commonly cited force in the success of Cleveland’s nonprofit developers is the commitment of foundations to provide funding for redevelopment. However, Flint also has foundations with large amounts of resources committed to that city. What are the differences in how the foundations in each city work that might help explain these differences in nonprofit development activity and effectiveness?

Land Lines: How can CBOs be most effective in brownfields redevelopment?

Margaret Dewar: Kris Wernstedt and I pose four groups of hypotheses or framing perspectives in our research on CBOs’ effectiveness in redeveloping brownfields. First, the special features of CBOs—their shortage of funds, small number of professional staff, lack of skills for redevelopment, and other issues—may interfere with implementing successful projects to reuse vacant, abandoned, and/or contaminated sites. CBO staff may especially lack the background to take on projects that involve contaminated sites.

Second, legal and political issues may interfere with the transfer of tax-reverted property to nonprofit developers for redevelopment projects, even though this land is essential for projects to go forward.

Third, weak local institutional settings may leave CBOs without adequate political or financial support for undertaking projects to reuse vacant, abandoned, and/or contaminated properties. Local government, financial institutions, foundations, and intermediaries may not provide sufficient backing to help CBOs over the substantial hurdles.

Fourth, federal and state legal and regulatory structures and financing provisions for contaminated sites in particular may interfere with CDCs’ efforts to reuse such property.

Another factor is that the demand for land in different cities affects the approach and efficacy of CBOs in redeveloping that land. In cities or neighborhoods with strong market demand, CBOs may have little opportunity to obtain such property for redevelopment because they are competing with private developers. On the other hand, in cities with weak demand for land, CBOs may struggle to find tenants or buyers for redeveloped property.

Land Lines: How is your work with the Lincoln Institute helping to broaden the scope of brownfield research?

Margaret Dewar: I continue to believe that contamination is rarely the determining factor in whether land can be reused or not, especially now that cleanup standards and liability risks have changed. By placing contamination in the larger context of the redevelopment of vacant, abandoned, and contaminated property in cities, we gain a better understanding of the complexity of redevelopment in general and of the kinds of changes that would help CBOs be more effective in remaking cities in ways that can improve the quality of life in distressed areas.