Brownfield Redevelopment — A Win-Win for the Economy and the Environment

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Hydrocarbon spillages, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, tributyltins, and asbestos.  These are all typical pollutants found on Brownfield sites, an abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facility available for redevelopment, often times contaminated by the agents above.

The EPA highlights success stories from 16 states across the nation, but perhaps the most well-known area in the U.S. for Brownfield redevelopment is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Copious former steel mill sites have been cleaned up and turned into high-end residential and shopping centers and offices.  Obviously there is risk associated with buying contaminated land, which is why purchasers of Brownfield sites are protected under the federal Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002.  Relief from liability is provided under the Comprehension Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, also known as CERCLA or Superfund.  The Act was amended to promote the cleanup and reuse of Brownfields, provide financial assistance for that cleanup, and reuse and to enhance State response programs.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has an entire office dedicated to Brownfields, the Office of Brownfield Reuse, and offers up to 75% of Brownfield clean up costs through the Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund.  Americans from coast to coast are developing on Brownfield sites, because of incentives like these and the environmental, social and economic benefits associated with redevelopment.

We learn at a very early age that to do our part to save the planet we must “reduce, reuse, recycle.”  Brownfield redevelopment is the best example of reusing to preserve the earth and its resources.  Not only does remediating a site eliminate contamination and health and safety hazards associated with that pollution, reusing a site increases the productivity of the land.  For every Brownfield acre redeveloped, a minimum of 4.5 acres would have been required had the same project been located in a Greenfield. A Greenfield is an area where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure, so the project is not constrained by prior work.  By reusing buildings instead of building a new one, rural areas can be preserved, thus making air and water cleaner, providing more open space, and maintaining a high quality of life for locals.  Because Brownfield sites often have greater location efficiency than alternative development scenarios, a 32-57% reduction in vehicle miles traveled and air pollution emissions/greenhouse gases is associated with reused sites.  The same site comparisons showed a 47-62% reduction in stormwater runoff.  Different percentages in reduction account of regional variation in development and travel patterns.

It is easy to see the environmental benefits of reusing buildings and sites, but Brownfield redevelopment also offers social benefits.  Brownfield sites are often found in areas of low income.  Walking down the street and seeing abandoned lots and crumpling factory buildings is a constant reminder for residents of the environmental injustice taking place in their neighborhood.  EPA surveys have indicated a reduction in crime recently after the redevelopment of a site, after these eye sores become a source of pride for residents.  Brownfield redevelopment offers other social benefits as well.  With a Brownfield site comes an opportunity and a way to revitalize a region whether the catalyst for change is a new shopping mall, a park or perhaps a community center.

McDonald’s Restaurant heiress, Joan Kroc, has donated over $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army for Kroc Community Centers all over the nation, but only one Center will be built on a former landfill.  Over $70 million is being utilized for the remediation and construction of the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center in Camden, New Jersey.  On the site of the former Harrison Avenue landfill, the Kroc Center will sprawl across 24 acres near the Delaware and Cooper Rivers as a 120,000 square feet facility.  The sand from bottom of the Delaware River is going on top of a landfill to reclaim the land and reclaim a quality of life for the people of Camden.

Camden is one of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a staggering 34% of the nearly 80,000 residents of the City of Camden at or below the poverty line. The new Center will offer hope to a city with 11.5% unemployment rate, by offering not only career and educational services, but child care for those who need it to jumpstart a degree or job.  The Kroc Center will provide aquatic programs, recreational programs, community services, and spiritual and character development for Camden residents.  Without the Salvation Army, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and other key players who have pushed the efforts of Brownfield redevelopment, the Harrison Avenue landfill site would sit untouched and unproductive, instead of transforming into a sanctuary.  The positive impact of the Kroc Center will be felt by all Camden residents, creating over 200 jobs during construction and over 150 jobs during operation, and providing physical, spiritual and intellectual resources for years and years to come.

While the social benefits associated with Brownfield redevelopment, like the Kroc Community Center in Camden, are undeniable, so are the economic advantages.  Tax incentives and labor concentration are among the most valuable.  Reusing an existing building brings new jobs to and investments into the community.  Also, the building’s entire infrastructure is already in place.  The site already has access to transportation infrastructure; no new roads have to be built (and paid for), and purchasers of a Brownfield site do not have to pay to connect water, electricity or phone lines.  Furthermore, a study conducted by the EPA Brownfields Program concluded that residential property values increased between 2 and 3 percent once a nearby Brownfield was assessed or cleaned up.  The study also showed that remediating a Brownfield site can increase overall property values within a one mile radius by $0.5 to $1.5 million.

While many see an inverse relationship associated with environmental benefits and economic growth, Brownfield redevelopment proves to be a model for them both…and then some, with the promise of community revitalization to boot, even in the poorest of cities like Camden, New Jersey.

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