The Economic and Environmental Advantages of Brownfield Redevelopment

Brownfield redevelopment is an important topic in many American communities. Cleanup and reuse of sites that have been (or are perceived to have been) contaminated by the activities of gas stations, dry cleaners, manufacturing facilities, or other environmentally discomforting past-uses can help revitalize communities struggling with the economic straits associated with low population density. Though brownfield redevelopment can be environmentally complicated, such projects provide economic development opportunities for communities dealing with housing, transportation, or infrastructure issues.

In the past, brownfields have often been ignored as communities developed and expanded. The sprawling trend of American cities allowed such sites to remain empty long after their original use had been abandoned. Why would developers fuss over and pay for the cleanup of a brownfield site when there were plenty of pristine (and cheap!) open sites on which new communities could be built? As environmentalists know - and many real estate developers are beginning to realize - developing open land before redeveloping existing structures is not a sustainable practice.

The EPA’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities is working to promote brownfield redevelopment by streamlining investments in associated regional planning efforts, as evidenced in a Smart Growth America-hosted webinar titled "Brownfields Redevelopment, Community Revitalization, and Regional Planning: Making It Work Together."

In essence, brownfields are real estate transactions- they are influenced by local codes, infrastructure spending, and market dynamics. Sophisticated developers are now looking at expanded reuse options such as housing, mixed-use buildings, and public green space in order to capitalize on the increasing demand for walkable urban communities. While once ignored for the cleanup and design challenges they posed, brownfields have begun to pique the attention of developers who know how to tap the government resources that exist for such cleanups and developments. Grant programs continue to expand and make the redevelopments ever more economically viable. By maximizing federal resources, building upon interagency coordination, identifying policy and programmatic barriers, planning for area-wide development rather than single-site projects, and supporting equitable transit-oriented development, developers are beginning to see the potential in brownfield redevelopment. Area-wide planning is a more holistic approach to community planning and, because the challenges posed by brownfields are systematic and rarely unique to any particular site, regional planning grants can be maximized when thinking broadly about brownfield issues.

These concepts have seen some real success in the EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities pilot projects. Among them:

  • The Fairmount Commuter Rail Line Rehabilitation Project in Dorchester, MA is bringing rail transit back to urban core areas that used to be by-passed by commuter trains traveling between the suburbs and downtown Boston. Renovation of old stations and planning for stops in previously abandoned Dorchester stations have led to real estate and commercial development in the once-blighted areas around the new stops.
  • In the La Alma/South Lincoln Park neighborhood of Denver, a 15-acre, 270- unit public housing development plagued by poverty, crime, and functional obsolescence was revitalized into a mixed-use, mixed-income transit-oriented development.
  • After massive property damage from severe floods in 2008, Iowa City undertook a redevelopment project to revitalize the area around the river and minimize damage from future floods. By reorganizing traffic circulation and preserving the riverfront for public green space, a more flood-proof, denser, and much more vibrant urban center was created.
  • In Indianapolis, urban shrinking is a major problem; many parts of the city see a 33% vacancy rate. In order to combat this trend and devise a revitalization strategy, planners looked at all EPA and Department of Transportation projects in the district and linked their Smart Growth priorities with these related projects in a funding charrette. The project succeeded in the designated Smart Growth Redevelopment District, which saw new investment in mixed-use developments and transportation projects.

From these success stories, it is clear that with smart planning and the collaboration of federal and local agencies, brownfield redevelopment can have drastic positive impacts on struggling communities. Robust planning can preserve existing neighborhoods while simultaneously adding density. Investment in such projects economically revitalizes urban centers and fights the good fight against suburban sprawl.

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It is heartening to see that

It is heartening to see that people are finally realizing horizontal growth is no longer analogous to economic growth. The resources simply no longer exist.

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