Energy & Environment

Making Good on Bad Land

Brownfields and their cleanup and redevelopment are dramatically changing the business of recycling urban land.
by | April 2004

William Fulton

William is a Governing columnist, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

A few years ago, I was interviewing a local politician about redeveloping urban land. "Are brownfields a problem?" I asked. "Are brownfields an opportunity? What are you as a mayor doing about brownfields?"

He looked at me with a confused expression and asked, "Who's Brownfields?"

That was then. These days, most mayors know all about brownfields. A recent media review by XL Insurance and the International Economic Development Council found that brownfields were the subject of more than 400 different newspaper articles in 2002--a significant increase from the previous two years.

While not scientific, the media review is a good indicator of how the brownfields question is moving forward. All over the country, landowners and government agencies are grappling with the question of how to recycle and reuse contaminated land. What they are finding is that the business of recycling urban land has changed dramatically.

The problems associated with redeveloping urban land were first highlighted more than a half-century ago when the Housing Act of 1949 created the urban renewal program. In those days, the problem was simple, if hard to solve. Land in urban areas was cut into small and expensive parcels, so it had to be assembled by the government. It was then sold to developers at a loss in order for cities to compete with the suburbs.

Most of this redevelopment focused on downtowns. The original notion of urban renewal was that slum areas in the vicinity of downtowns needed to be razed and replaced. The biggest success stories--and the greatest tragedies--involved such downtown-area locations. More recently, redevelopment has moved out of downtown and targeted close- in neighborhoods or older suburbs. But the basic idea is the same: Small, underutilized parcels need to be assembled and conveyed to developers at a competitive price.

With brownfields, however, it's not only about assembling land at a competitive price. Obviously, it's about cleaning up toxic contamination, an issue that can be a black hole both financially and in terms of regulation. But there are other subtle differences that will play an important role in shaping the landscape of urban redevelopment over the next few decades.

While traditional redevelopment projects deal with rundown residential and shopping districts, brownfields are usually industrial lands where toxic pollutants have been used in manufacturing or servicing processes. It's not surprising, for example, that the XL media review found the most press coverage of brownfields in the rusting industrial heartland of the Midwest.

But industrial land is much less geographically concentrated than poor residential neighborhoods or even declining commercial strips. Manufacturing decentralized quickly during the post-World War II era, and as a result brownfields are all over the place. Some are located at the center of old "factory gate" city neighborhoods, but many more are located in middle-aged, low-density suburbs. This makes it a little more difficult to use brownfield cleanup as a mechanism to create "centered" communities.

The flip side, however, is that brownfields are not necessarily small. Many sites are dozens or even hundreds of acres--old factory sites, whole industrial districts or enormous military bases dating from WWII. The average size of the brownfield site covered by XL media review was 41 acres. This is huge by traditional redevelopment standards, a size that in the past would have required dozens of property acquisitions, some by eminent domain. As we have seen with the California military bases, Denver's Stapleton Airport site and many large locations, brownfields provide an opportunity to create whole "new communities" in areas previously given up as lost.

Finally--and perhaps most important--brownfields involve a different and perhaps healthier relationship between the public and private sectors than redevelopment does. Classic redevelopment usually entails a forcible transfer of property via eminent domain to the government, followed by reconveyance to another private property owner who builds hotels, convention centers, shopping centers or housing. This is why, even today, redevelopment faces opposition from property-rights advocates.

With brownfields, private owners usually retain the land throughout the cleanup process, assisted by government finance programs so that the cost doesn't make recycling the land prohibitive. Working through the land issues this way is surely preferable to eminent domain.

There's no guarantee that all the brownfields in America will ever be cleaned up and reused productively. But the emerging trend suggests a new generation of urban redevelopment that's less likely to carry the baggage of "urban renewal."


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