Faculty Profile

Lavea Brachman
October 1, 2002

Lavea Brachman is a lawyer and a city planner who has worked and taught in the area of community involvement in brownfields redevelopment projects for the last decade. She is currently director of the Ohio office and associate director of the Chicago-based nonprofit, the Delta Institute, which engages in the policy and practice of improving environmental quality and promoting community and economic development in the Great Lakes region. She is also an adjunct professor at The Ohio State University in the City and Regional Planning Department. Last year, pursuant to passage of legislation and approval of a statewide bond bill, Ohio Governor Bob Taft appointed Brachman to serve on the Clean Ohio Council, which is charged by the legislature with selecting and disbursing $200 million for brownfield projects throughout the state.

Brachman developed and taught a new course at the Lincoln Institute last spring, called “Reusing Brownfields and Other Underutilized Land: A Seminar for Senior Staff of Community-Based and Non-profit Development Agencies,” and she will teach a similar course in 2003. She also wrote an article on “Key Success Factors in Brownfield Property Redevelopment” for a forthcoming Lincoln publication on redevelopment of vacant land.

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

Lavea Brachman: Brownfield redevelopment was just emerging as a special focus of urban planning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was working on my master’s degree in city planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As a student, I joined a student-professor team on an early brownfields project for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) to determine what it could do with some previously utilized property it owned in Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. We assessed three primary aspects (social, legal and physical) to determine the site’s redevelopment potential.

That experience and the challenge of dealing with multiple parties and multiple issues that brownfield redevelopment entails peaked my interest intellectually, and I recognized that changing land uses could have profound and positive implications for social change. Previously, as an attorney with a Washington, DC, law firm, I had practiced in the environmental and land use areas, so the interdisciplinary nature of brownfields redevelopment seemed to bring together my legal and planning training with my professional skills and areas of knowledge and expertise.

LL: What are the primary obstacles to brownfield redevelopment and how have these changed over time?

LB: Contrary to general public misperceptions, the primary obstacle to brownfield redevelopment today is not environmental contamination per se, even though the prior use and associated environmental conditions of these properties distinguish them from other underutilized properties. The primary obstacle to redevelopment remains the threat of liability that by statute arises from acts that cause or contribute to contamination and/or to those with an ownership interest in the property. A second major obstacle is financing, since brownfields are many times more expensive to redevelop than regular real estate projects. The liability threat also has dampened interest from investors or banks that might be perceived as being in the chain of title.

A third obstacle can be lack of local support. The need for public involvement in brownfield redevelopment, from financing, to regulatory oversight, to local zoning and planning, means that community support is instrumental to making brownfield redevelopment work. The potential fear and lack of understanding about the impact of contamination on a community can also interfere with local support. A fourth obstacle is obtaining site control or clear title to the property. Many brownfield properties are tax delinquent or burdened with liens, and the title may remain in the name of a defunct company. Of all the obstacles, the solutions to title problems vary most widely from state to state.

A final obstacle is location, because many of these properties are found in areas that are littered with multiple vacant properties or they are not readily accessible to all-important interstate highways or rail networks. Sometimes brownfield sites with a long history of use were at one time accessible to key transportation lines, but those roads or rails have been superseded by new highways located several miles or more away, leaving the abandoned sites isolated from current development activity.

LL: How has the brownfield redevelopment practice evolved over the last decade?

LB: A decade ago, brownfields were not identified or defined as such. They were the legacy of a manufacturing and industrial economy that left behind vacant properties and blighted urban areas and the remnants of laws that, through the nature of the liability schemes, provided disincentives for cleanup. The federal government had not formally recognized the value of redeveloping these properties, and those of us who were involved in the field early on worked with regulators to convince them to pay more attention. Also, the fear of another Love Canal (that is, illness among residents arising from property contamination) was still fresh, so there was little flexibility in cleanup standards. Brownfields were redeveloped, if at all, outside the regular, legal constructs or under special agreements between owner and regulator, or by using special contracts such as prospective purchaser agreements, which prevented a future buyer from being held liable for previous contamination.

Now brownfield redevelopment has been increasingly streamlined, approached by developers as a real estate deal with a twist—the environmental cleanup. Many of the primary obstacles mentioned above remain, although they have been somewhat diminished over time, as new state and federal policies, laws and regulations have been passed and implemented to address the specific issues with brownfields liability, provide new funding sources, alter title processes for expunging tax delinquent and other liens, and even require community involvement. Last December, for example, Congress passed the “Brownfields Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act of 2001,” which provides for additional grants and loans for certain activities as well as clarifications on liability.

Brownfields offer an interesting case study of how informal processes that originally emerged out of necessity outside the legal, policy and financing mainstream have been increasingly institutionalized. For instance, where once a property would remain unremediated and fenced off because the cleanup was too burdensome and expensive, or the cleanup would be the subject of years of litigation, now a property that is marketable can act as an incentive for all parties to proceed rapidly.

In the strong market of the 1990s, the real estate pressures allowed even some hard-to-develop properties, like long-abandoned brownfields, to be redeveloped, although it was primarily the “low hanging fruit” or the brownfields that were already either well-located, had minimal contamination, or were not complicated by multiple parties contributing to past contamination. The liability on these properties could be capped and financial institutions thus could reduce their risk. Also the regulatory climate has become less aggressive with the passage of “voluntary cleanup statutes,” which allow cleanups to be accomplished without regulatory oversight in many states. The ultimate carrot is a government agreement not to hold future owners liable (that is, a covenant not to sue) if they meet certain standards. To date, fewer cleanups that predicted have actually been accomplished under these new state laws, but they create a climate ultimately more conducive to redevelopment. Nevertheless, in the weaker economic market of 2002, with greater risk, more uncertainty and less development generally, there will be less brownfield redevelopment, particularly of those sites that do not have the easily marketable attributes.

LL: Who are some of the key players involved in successful brownfield redevelopment projects?

LB: Like most real estate deals, brownfield redevelopment inherently involves multiple parties. Public-private partnerships are particularly crucial to the success of brownfield redevelopment projects, because of the quasi-regulated nature of the cleanup and the complicated financing arrangements. The list of potential key players is a long one. It includes state and or federal regulators, elected community officials and other community leaders, private developers (both for-profit and not-for-profit), past and future property owners, private financial institutions or investors and public funding sources. Often those essential parties are traditional adversaries. For instance, designating the future use of a brownfield property must involve a state (and sometimes federal) regulatory agency, which can approve the cleanup standard for the particular use (normally higher for residential and lower for industrial) and plan to remove the contamination, as well as previous and/or future owners who under previous legal standards would have been held liable by the regulatory agency.

Funding for the cleanup and redevelopment inevitably comes from a variety of sources. Notably, up to 70 to 80 percent of funding for brownfield projects can be from public funding sources, but usually those public monies are predicated on private (often local) institutional financing as well, making the public-private nexus very important.

LL: What is the role of community-based organizations in brownfield redevelopment and to what extent is this type of redevelopment an extension of broader community planning efforts facing many urban neighborhoods?

LB: Community support and leadership from the local government are essential to the successful redevelopment of a brownfield property. For instance, localities often must be the applicant for the essential public (state or federal) funds needed to accomplish the project. If zoning or subdivision changes must be made through local boards, local support and leadership is crucial. Community-based organizations such as community development corporations should play an active role in brownfield redevelopment as well, particularly in areas that are not as naturally attractive to private market actors, either due to location and limited access of the properties or to general neighborhood blight and lack of economic activity. In these areas, broader community planning efforts undertaken by community groups, such as community-wide master plans, are often productive starting points if multiple brownfield and other underutilized properties need to be addressed. Master plans encompassing these properties should take into account neighborhood and community needs, such as local stores, recreational areas, and other facilities. The biggest barrier to brownfield redevelopment in these areas is the market and the physical and economic condition of the surrounding area.

Nevertheless, to many community groups these sites remain intimidating for several reasons: the technical aspects of the contamination; the stigma attached to the properties by their condition; their negative impacts on surrounding properties; and, as mentioned, their location in generally blighted and hard-to-market areas. Furthermore, brownfield sites present more upfront barriers not present in the kinds of housing development projects traditionally undertaken by community-based organizations, such as site remediation, title issues, the assembly of multiple parcels, and the complex financing that is necessary from multiple sources. Getting community organizations past these threshold issues through capacity building and training in technical skills will position them to address more strategic brownfield redevelopment challenges.

Given recent state and federal statutory changes and multiple sources of public funding, the redevelopment of single brownfield properties in stable or improving markets now involves fewer legal and financial barriers. It also requires a very different strategy from developing properties in declining markets where there are other non-brownfield barriers to be overcome. The challenge for addressing brownfield properties in these latter areas remains to be solved, but community involvement is certainly a key aspect to its resolution.