Written by Sarah Sieloff
Sarah Sieloff is the Executive Director of the Center for Creative Land Recycling. She is also the 2016 ULI SF Chamberlin Young Leader in the Non-Profit/Public Sector, and a member of ULI’s Redevelopment and Reuse Product Council.
I’m a fan of Ed McMahon, ULI’s Sustainability Fellow. An attorney by training, Ed thinks about cities in ways that are practical and helpful. In his most recent article, “Downtowns Matter,” which was published in the fall 2016 edition of the National Main Street Center’s annual publication, State of Main, Ed breaks down the eight-ingredient “secret sauce” that makes great downtowns.
What struck me about Ed’s article was the degree to which his eight traits of strong downtowns also apply to the brownfields redevelopment process. U.S. EPA defines brownfields as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant". Brownfields redevelopment is a foundational pillar of vibrant communities and strong main streets, and in that spirit, I’m sharing some thoughts below that build on Ed’s points, with a specific focus on their application to reusing contaminated land.
Eight key ingredients for successful main streets:
1. Have a vision for the future. Ed points out that “There are really only two kinds of change in the world today: planned change and unplanned change.” Unplanned change might create brownfields: a plant closes, a business goes bankrupt, hazardous substances spill and contaminate soil or groundwater. Planned change is the method by which remediation and redevelopment occur. It’s how we repair brownfields, and the backbone of planned change is a community-driven vision.
2. Inventory assets. Successful communities start from their strengths, and they recognize that some of those strengths might look like major eyesores. As we noted in a recent guest blog post for Bay Area developer Westlake Urban, “To reclaim is to take back and own once more. Reclaiming requires accepting what is difficult, ugly, or not immediately obvious as valuable.” Backed by a plan and the other key ingredients noted below, a brownfield can be an asset. By the same token, as Ed notes, “Successful economic development is rarely about one big thing…it’s about lots of little things working synergistically together in a plan that makes sense.” One brownfield redevelopment project won’t be a silver bullet, but it might be part of a city’s “silver buckshot.”
3. Build plans around existing assets. The same assets that appear in an inventory are the ones that should inform plans. Assets take many forms: historic buildings, accessible waterfronts, and outdoor vistas are a few examples. Communities can build on these assets in different ways, by investing in redevelopment or, in the case of outdoor vistas, protecting them from sprawl by encouraging infill development within existing neighborhoods. Effective brownfield redevelopment can accomplish all three of those things at once, by removing hazards to environmental and human health, reusing existing infrastructure, and generating economic growth.
4. Use education and incentives, not just regulation, to generate good development. Ed notes that “Regulations prevent the worst in development, but they rarely bring out the best.” Creative ways to encourage redevelopment, particularly of difficult sites like brownfields, could include expedited permit review, tax abatements for the rehabilitation of historic buildings, award programs, and density bonuses. Education is critical because, as Ed points out, “people and businesses will not embrace what they don’t understand. Finally, community education is important because, citizens have a right to choose the future, but they need to know what the choices are.” Education is the only effective way to address the uncertainties and fear that contaminated sites can generate among citizens and neighbors. Talking early and often is a critical way to help all members of the community understand a redevelopment project from top to bottom.
5. Pick and choose among development projects. As Ed says, “communities that will not say no to anything will get the worst of everything.” He points out that communities need to not only have a vision, but be prepared to negotiate with developers – especially out-of-town developers and national chain stores and franchises – about building to support that vision.
6. Cooperate with neighbors for mutual benefit. Redevelopment is not a zero-sum game. As Ed notes, “the real competition today is between regions,” and this is especially true for small and rural commuities. As cities consider redevelopment options for brownfields sites, consider what’s surrounds the site in terms of needs and opportunities. A brownfield may seem like a local issue, but its redevelopment can have regional impact.
7. Pay attention to aesthetics. “Over 80 percent of everything ever built in America has been built since about 1950, and a lot of what we have built is just plain ugly.” I often think that Ed is at his best when he talks about beauty – he pulls no punches and reminds us that the decisions we make today shape the places we’ll inhabit fifty and more years from now. Ed also makes the point that “the problem is not development, per se; but rather, the problem is the patterns of development.” A redevelopment project is a chance to break away from negative patterns. A brownfield can be an eyesore, and its redevelopment is an opportunity to turn something ugly into something of great beauty, but only if communities prioritize aesthetics and sustainable development patterns as part of the redevelopment process.
8. Strong leaders and committed citizens. Redevelopment is a long, complex, and costly process, and successful completion depends upon local champions ranging from Mayors to small community groups. Ed notes that “Leadership is critical, but often underappreciated.” Indeed, leadership around a redevelopment project can have its bumps and warts: it’s rare that all citizens and interests will approve of a particular project, but without leadership, redevelopment won’t happen.
Photo via wabisabi2015 on Flickr