Redeveloping Urban Brownfields

Donald T. Iannone, November 1, 1995

Brownfields are industrial and commercial properties with known or suspected soil contamination problems. The environmental and financial challenges of dealing with these sites represent serious barriers to potential urban revitalization.

As the antonym for greenfields, or undeveloped land in suburban and rural communities, brownfields have made their way to the top of many urban priority lists. The National Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Economic Development Administration, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are among the groups that have made recent brownfield policy statements.

Development Perspectives

Many central cities have nearly exhausted their supply of “clean” land for development, contributing to their loss of residents, jobs and a stable tax base. Inner-city businesses often relocate to surrounding suburbs because land is not available in the city to support their future expansion. Thus, urban brownfields give an inadvertent boost to the economic development strategies of outlying areas. This increased development pressure, in turn, can pose complex suburban and rural growth management issues.

While most known or suspected brownfields are in central cities, the problem is also evident in older inner-ring suburbs, some rural areas and military base communities. Brownfields, in short, play an important role in shaping regional development patterns by influencing the location of residential and business activities. Central cities must tackle the brownfields problem to provide new land for development and reverse their declining economic competitiveness.

Environmental Perspectives

Varying opinions exist on the extent of the brownfields problem, and more importantly what the public and private sectors should do about assessing environmental hazards on these sites. This situation will change, but not before environmental regulators clarify the relevant policies. Brownfields are not Superfund sites by regulatory definitions. The environmental and health risks of Superfund sites are significantly greater than those of brownfields. Nevertheless, brownfields can pose serious environmental threats where “real” environmental and health risks are documented through risk assessment. In many instances, however, brownfields may be less threatening than earlier thought.

Depending upon future site use, environmental and health threats can vary considerably, which raises the “how clean is clean” issue. Regulators, property owners, developers, lenders, insurers and local government officials are engaged in an open debate over future brownfields clean-up standards. Many experts, myself included, advocate standards based upon the future use of the property, as opposed to a “one standard applies to all uses” approach. Earlier regulatory practices required sites to be fully cleaned for potential residential use, which requires the highest level of clean-up. These practices are being challenged because they are so costly and because they discourage recycling of industrial land.

State Policy Innovations

Nineteen states have created voluntary brownfields clean-up programs as alternatives to regulatory enforcement. Programs such as those in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey allow property owners, municipalities and other parties greater flexibility in meeting clean-up standards.

State voluntary programs are positive for several reasons. First, because they are voluntary they allow property owners and developers to initiate the process without traditional enforcement pressures. This leads to more response from private markets, and to more creative and cost-effective clean-up and redevelopment. Secondly, these programs encourage problem solving at the local level, where land use, zoning and planning regulations can contribute to solutions.

Thirdly, the state programs address key liability concerns by offering a level of “comfort” to banks, property owners, and others involved in clean-up and redevelopment. Many argue these programs must go even further. A final benefit is that state government is often willing to provide financial incentives, which experience shows are often necessary to get companies and developers to clean and reuse these properties.

State programs are expected to continue to gain momentum over time, but most administrators believe they need extra help from the EPA to make their programs more successful. They are urging federal authorities to strengthen assurances against future liability claims by stronger “comfort letters” to property owners, lenders and developers. Currently the federal government cannot provide a 100 percent delegation of authority to the states for brownfield regulation, without future federal legislative changes. Better intergovernmental coordination and greater information exchange about standards and remediation technology would help the situation. The states would welcome federal financial support for their programs, even though many will rely on private user fees to finance program administration.

Future Knowledge and Investment Needs

Most cities discover that the unknowns outweigh the facts about older industrial and commercial properties. This lack of knowledge limits city leaders’ ability to shape cost-effective strategies to cope with these problems. Knowledge is an essential ingredient in effective strategy development—ask any corporation employing knowledge strategies to best their competition. Communities with brownfields must inventory these sites and investigate the risks and opportunities associated with these properties.

Properly used, the information from these investigations can help separate real from perceived problems related to site conditions and future development potential. Knowledge can help manage the risks and reduce the uncertainty. In short, we need to end the hysteria about brownfields, which may motivate political action but also may reduce public and private confidence that cities can be revitalized and made whole once again.

Many people are searching for “deep pockets” to finance brownfield remediation. This search frightens all levels of government as budget-cutting pressures continue to grow across the public sector. Corporations and private property owners, on the other hand, reject the notion that they should either pay clean-up costs that may be unnecessary or pay for pollution problems created by previous owners or third parties.

Overall national costs to the public and private sectors of cleaning up brownfields are unknown because there is no agreed-upon definition of brownfields, and because clean-up standards continue to change. Both problems greatly affect cost estimates. City officials are unable to assess the cost of property clean-up within their jurisdictions for the same basic reasons. Future use of risk assessment techniques, coupled with the use of more cost-effective remediation technology, will help to lower these costs.

In the absence of deep pockets, communities must identify creative approaches to funding site clean-up and redevelopment. Through citywide planning, policymakers must establish useful priorities to guide their investments based upon future development trends and land use patterns. Serious environmental threats should be eliminated on any site, regardless of its development potential. In most other cases, the development potential should be a primary factor in considering next steps.

The public sector should engage corporations that own contaminated sites, banks, insurance companies, pension funds, and real estate investment funds to determine what is required to attract private capital to fund clean-up and redevelopment. Private property owners, corporations and developers should seek state and local economic development groups as potential investment partners in returning these sites to productive use.

Donald T. Iannone directs the Economic Development Program and the Great Lakes Environmental Finance Center in The Urban Center at Cleveland State University. Much of his work focuses on financing the redevelopment of brownfield sites.

Additional information in printed newsletter.

1. Photo caption: The Publicker site, a former distillery on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, was cleaned up with EPA funds and will be redeveloped as a shipping terminal.

Photo credit information: – Richard McMullin, photographer, Office of the City Representative, Philadelphia

2. Map of U.S.: EPA Brownfields Demonstration Cities

Large Cities:

Cleveland/Cuyahoga County, Ohio
Baltimore, Maryland
Detroit, Michigan
Indianapolis, Indiana
New Orleans, Louisiana
St. Louis, Missouri

Mid-Size Cities:

Birmingham, Alabama
Bridgeport, Connecticut
Knoxville, Tennessee
Louisville, Kentucky
Richmond, Virginia
Rochester, New York
Sacramento, California
Trenton, New Jersey

Smaller Cities/Clusters:

Cape Charles/Northampton County, Virginia
Laredo, Texas
Oregon Mill Sites (7 small towns), Oregon
West Central Municipal Conference, Cook County, Illinois

Caption: Eighteen cities or regions have already received grants of up to $200,000 through the EPA’s Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative. An additional 32 cities will receive funds by the end of 1995. The common objectives of these projects are to assess contamination at abandoned sites; involve community residents in decision making; leverage other public and private funds for clean-up and redevelopment; resolve liability issues; and serve as role models for other communities.