Brownfields Are More Critical to Economic Development Than Ever

Ignacio Dayrit & the CALED Brownfields & Land Revitalization Committee

The redevelopment of brownfields is a key component to economic development in our communities. Reuse of these sites promotes business expansion and job creation, tax revenue from new economic activity, and improvement of business and community climate. In most cities and counties, redevelopment agencies used to have responsibility for these sites. But since the elimination of redevelopment agencies, economic development departments and staff are finding that addressing these properties has now become their responsibility. For this reason, CALED has created a new Brownfields Committee designed to provide technical assistance in this important area. This article provides a background of what brownfields are, how they impact communities, and how to learn more and participate through CALED.

What are brownfields? The statutory definition of a brownfield is real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of hazardous substances, pollutants, contaminants, controlled substances, petroleum or petroleum products, or is mine-scarred land. In practice, brownfields are blighted, vacant and/or underutilized properties where suspected or known contamination inhibits reuse. This contamination (whether suspected or known) can include a range of issues, such as: current or past storage tanks; drums containing chemicals; lead and asbestos in buildings; contamination in the soil or groundwater. Common examples include vacant or underutilized gas stations, industrial and manufacturing facilities, railroad yards and spurs, strip malls and dry cleaners and many others.

Brownfields are everywhere; there are estimated to be more than one million sites nationally. These sites create a negative vibe that inhibits investment for reuse and jobs, and potential for environmental and public health impacts in communities.

Brownfield sites impacts communities in many ways:

  • In our neighborhoods: These sites affect neighborhoods and main streets. Many downtown areas, in both small towns and large cities, have sites that were once used as churches, theaters, and stores. Communities leapfrog suspected sites, creating land use challenges and unfriendly streets and sidewalks.
  • In our pocketbooks: Cities lose potential taxes – sales, property and business – from idled sites, and city coffers are drained because of crime, vagrancy, homelessness and vandalism that are attracted to these sites.
  • In our decisions: Federal and state laws place huge financial responsibilities – costs that may far exceed the economic value of a clean property – and legal challenges to responsible parties for contamination on a site.

For these reasons, communities need to eliminate brownfields and work with partners – developers, nonprofits, funding and financing agencies, neighbors – to assess and clean up these properties. Over the past two decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with several Federal partners, and the State of California have created liability relief, and funding, financial and technical assistance programs to assist in the reuse of brownfields for economic development. A sampling of such programs includes the following:

  • The EPA and state have recommended steps and liability relief tools to ensure that prospective purchasers and developers are protected from costs and liabilities of responsible parties.
  • The EPA and California Environmental Protection Agency have grant and technical assistance programs for site assessments and cleanup or eligible sites.
  • The California State Water Resources Control Board has grant programs to assist with the assessment and clean up of underground storage tanks.
  • Several Federal and state agencies provide grants, financing and technical assistance to assist communities in sustainable reuse planning and implementation.

There are many California communities that have used these Federal and state resources to turn brownfields into assets, using resources such as grants, tax credits, and technical assistance. These projects create and retain jobs, generate tax revenue, and improve neighborhood quality of life:

In Richmond, the city and partners facilitated the reuse of underutilized and historic buildings for manufacturing, recreational and community gathering space, incorporating features such as renewable energy and historic rehabilitation.

  • In Siskiyou County, using grant funds from the EPA, the Siskiyou County Economic Development Council is assisting several cities in conducting site assessments and community planning for potential downtown infill and industrial park development.
  • In National City, using grants and free technical assistance from the EPA, the city is simultaneously improving two neighborhoods by planning a green industrial park in a brownfield area to accommodate auto body and auto painting shops that will relocate from a residential neighborhood.
  • In the City of San Diego, the city and private partners used state grant funds to redevelop a former gas station into a mixed used residential and commercial building bisected by a new trolley station.

The skills, expertise and training necessary to achieve these results span many disciplines. Within a local government structure, these are scattered in various departments, such as housing, economic development, community development, public works, legal, finance and others. In many communities, such expertise can only be obtained from consultants.

If your community has brownfields challenges and needs assistance in accessing these programs and expertise, CALED is here to help. CALED has created a Brownfields Committee to help economic development staff and private parties learn how to convert brownfields into economic development assets. The committee is comprised of professionals in various fields with decades of experience in economic development and community revitalization, and who have leveraged these programs with local resources. Be on the lookout for upcoming webinars and presentations at various CALED events to help you learn more about how to incorporate brownfield redevelopment into your economic development strategies.

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