Why Brownfields Redevelopment Matters for Cities of All Sizes

Sacramento’s Railyards project is one of the largest brownfield redevelopment sites in the U.S. [Image Credit: Railyards.com.]

Though the term is less than thirty years old, “brownfields” has quickly become one of the most important buzzwords in urban development. In the United States alone, there are more than 450,000 brownfields (properties whose reuse may be affected by environmental contamination), as well as numerous organizations and acts of legislation dedicated to brownfields cleanup.

On Wednesday, February 22, the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate hosted an event to discuss new policy changes and development projects related to brownfields revitalization, as well as offer advice for how cities can play a greater leadership role in the remediation process. Before an audience of industry professionals, real estate developers, city officials, faculty, and students, a panel of experts outlined the need for increased involvement on the municipal and local level.

“City-run governance is the future of environmental regulation,” says Daniel Walsh, the Founding Director of New York’s Office of Environmental Remediation. Through his work with the city, Walsh has invested around $9 million in brownfield cleanup projects, with a focus on underserved communities like Harlem, South Bronx, and North and Central Brooklyn (where the financial impact of brownfields is particularly robust). New York’s Brownfields Cleanup Program is not only the first of its kind, he says, but also the most prolific in the country.

Unfortunately, the program’s priorities are not always reflected on the national level. The White House’s recent decision to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) threatens to stymie programs that are critical to brownfields development. While the federal government has awarded tens of millions of dollars for redeveloping Brownfields sites, Congress has not renewed the Federal Brownfields Tax Incentive, which allowed developers to deduct expenses for brownfields cleanup. According to Walsh, the tax break was “without question … the best incentive the federal government has ever developed to promote brownfields cleanup and revitalization.”

With Congress unlikely to expand its involvement, cities have become increasingly responsible for addressing issues of environmental contamination. Now more than ever, experts find that local governments have the power — and the resources — to regulate land use and cleanup. By partnering with private institutions, establishing performance metrics, supporting local developers, and enlisting the help of industry specialists, cities and municipal governments can improve their existing cleanup efforts.

But which cities stand to gain the most from brownfields redevelopment?

On this matter, the panelists tend to disagree. In general, brownfields are often located in former wetlands or coastal areas with rising sea levels and waterfront exposure. In past decades, before the U.S. began implementing harsher environmental regulations, companies were permitted to dump toxic waste into rivers and lakes, thereby polluting waterfront communities. But many former industrial sites have also suffered from contaminants such as petroleum, pesticides, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons. In short, brownfields can be found in many different cities across the country.

According to Michael Taylor, the President of the development firm Vita Nuova, America’s second- and third-tier cities deserve the most attention and investment, seeing as “there’s more need than opportunity” in these communities. But David Freeman, the Director of the Environmental Department at the law firm Gibbons P.C., argues there are still many contaminated areas in New York City. The difference is that New York is equipped with both the tools and capital to pioneer its own revitalization, while other cities are more dependent on federal oversight.

“A lot of the capacity we see outside of New York City is at the county level,” says Jean Hamerman, the Deputy Director of the Center for Creative Land Recycling. According to Hamerman, cities need a champion who will support their efforts and identify new areas for redevelopment. After receiving more than $250,000 from the Brownfield Opportunity Areas Program, for instance, the city of Batavia was able to perform a land analysis that led to the cleanup of their industrial facilities. Today, Hamerman says the community “has renewed hope for prosperity.”

Indeed, rather than leaning on the federal government, smaller cities can look to counties and municipalities for additional financing. The key, Walsh says, is to find a way to marry urban growth with environmental protection. While developers are less and less fearful of becoming involved with brownfield sites, cities must be willing to assume a similar degree of risk. Without the involvement of local government, urban areas run the risk of undermining their real estate economies and neglecting their underserved residents.

STEVEN PEDIGO is the Director of the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab and a Clinical Assistant Professor for Economic Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies. He is also the Director of the Research and Advising for the Creative Class Group, an Associate Partner at Resonance Consultancy (Vancouver/ NYC), and a Senior Advisor for Leland Consulting(Portland). Follow him on twitter @iamstevenpedigo.

ARIA BENDIX is a writer for the NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, CityLab, Bustle, and The Harvard Crimson, among other publications. Follow her on twitter @ariabendix.