Brownfield Restoration: two birds with one stone.

Jim Inhofe Accessed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Inhofe  on 10/23/13

Jim Inhofe Accessed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Inhofe on 10/23/13

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said in a statement this spring “it’s very rare that I have the opportunity to speak positively about any program that comes out of the EPA. But the Brownfields program is a conservative program. It leverages public finances with private investors to clean up contaminated areas that would otherwise be abandoned so they can redeveloped into something productive and profitable. And that’s why I’m proud to be a primary sponsor of the Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development (BUILD) Act of 2013.”

Senator Inhofe is seen by many to be one of the most conservative people in Washington. This is a man who has stated on more than one occasion that he thinks global warming is a hoax. So why are he and other Republicans such as our own Mike Crapo (R-ID), not only supporting an EPA program, but sponsoring a bill to expand it? The simple answer is, they see the benefits to their states.

Brownfeilds are not a new problem, and restoring brownfields is far from a new idea. Programs such as CERCLA have been around for decades. These programs have pioneered the concept of brownfield restoration. Restoring land and buildings that have become blights in can rejuvenate neighborhoods and bring the property value up for surrounding properties. The brownfields restoration program is seen by many to be a large success. The economic benefits alone are so blatant that even the most staunch conservatives cant turn a blind eye to them. Properties surrounding restored brownfield areas rise in value by an average of 2 to 3 percent, sometimes more. Even with the hundreds of success stories, there are still as many as 425,000 brownfield properties throughout the U.S.

In order to clean up these sites, developers often have to apply for multiple grants. This increases administrative costs and therefore makes some projects unappealing to developers. To put it bluntly, brownfield sites are often viewed as more trouble than they are worth.

The BUILD act will streamline the grant application process and also make brownfield restoration possible in areas that it simply isn’t now. One example of this is small towns. Throughout the united states there are small towns with abandoned gas stations, dry cleaners, etc. These towns often do not have the resources or technical expertise to apply for brownfields grants. The BUILD act provides a technical assistance grant for towns with under 15,000 people. Many of the republican senators supporting this bill have constituencies in small rural areas. They recognize that this bill will give these small areas an opportunity to take advantage of a program that wasn’t easily available to them before.

Within the state of Idaho the brownfield program has already made numerous success stories. One of the most noticeable in Boise is the American Linden property in downtown Boise. This property previously housed chemicals used to clean laundry as well as holding barrels of diesel fuel used to run trucks. The building eventually fell into disrepair and the contaminations made it unappealing as a restoration project. For years it was an abandoned eyesore in downtown Boise.

The Brownfields restoration program helped to bring this building back to its former glory. It is now used for events such as weddings, which brings business to the whole Linen district. The BUILD act even provides specific grants to convert former brownfields into green energy  facilities. Buildings on brownfields are becoming energy efficient

Accessed from http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2009/10/green-shoots-from-brownfields on 10/24/13

Former Steel Mill with Wind Mills.
Accessed from http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2009/10/green-shoots-from-brownfields on 10/24/13

some brownfield properties are even becoming wind or solar farms. With the BUILD act this could go from a rare site to a common occurrence.

While the bill has bipartisan support this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is easily passable. It was introduced on March 7th 2013 and was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public works. This puts it in a make or break situation. If it is not encouraged to be acted upon, it can be a place for it to go to die. Planners are in a special position. They have the knowledge of the benefits a bill like this could have on a community. By advocating for this bill to be passed, planners will have another tool that can be used to improve their communities.

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One thought on “Brownfield Restoration: two birds with one stone.

  1. Thanks for writing this Alex. Do you know if the Linen Building developer (David Hale) utilized direct grants for the remediation of the hazardous materials in the building (I know the federal program that offered assistance for petroleum abatement had only a short life, and is now sunset), or did he simply used the available tax credit for the associated expenditures? Was the Brownfield program’s petroleum abatement fund re-enacted?

    Though the availability of grants are a great incentive for some troubled properties, I imagine the Brownfield Tax Credit is enough of an inducement to kick-start many of these conversion projects. I’d love to see a similar tax expenditure program made available for Greyfields. The advantage offered by such a program is that it would extend the benefit to a whole (multi-building) site even if it hasn’t been aggregated under a single ownership, whereas the Brownfield program is often only used to remediate single buildings (like the Linen Building) — and then only when the property rests under a single ownership.

    Hale’s project opens the window to a set of possibilities about neighborhood rehabilitation, though, in his case, only due to his broad financial interest in multiple buildings throughout his self-created Linen District. If a tax credit could be created for eligible properties within a pre-defined District, it might have a similar kick-start effect — without the need for a single deep-pocketed developer. Though I imagine the municipality will need to adopt an actual vision plan for the neighborhood — within which eligible properties (and conversions) would be identified.

    “… within the context of today’s compromised suburban environment, the design and implementation of a singular building does very little to answer the question: How can we as design practitioners be ambitious, committed, and fiercely realistic about one of the most significant challenges to the profession, the rehabilitation of America’s default greyfields?” (Gamble and LeBlanc, Places 16.3)

    In this piece by Michael Gamble and W. Jude LeBlanc titled “Incremental Urbanism: The Auto and the Pedestrian Reconsidered in Greyfield Reclamation”, the authors offer an intriguing insight into the possibilities (and urgency) of re-configuring the economically and socially underperforming properties located in our suburban areas. Here’s a link to their paper:

    http://places.designobserver.com/media/pdf/Incremental_Ur_660.pdf

    Here’s a link to a wonderful report titled, “Greyfields to Goldfields: From Failing Shopping Centers to Great Neighborhoods”:

    http://www.usmayors.org/brownfields/library/greyfieldstogoldfields.pdf

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on this, especially given your experience in affordable housing and real estate development. Thanks!

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