Urban Revitalization: Taking on Brownfields

Urban revitalization continues in Webster Station, the resurging "innovation district" east of Downtown Dayton, Ohio.

The growing demand for sustainable urban lifestyles and the resonating social awareness of ecological impacts from sprawling new constructions are driving today’s fierce competition for urban development. As development opportunities in environmentally uncomplicated areas dwindle across cities in the Midwest, savvy developers consider brownfields for lucrative urban revitalization projects.

Brownfields are unused properties hindered by known or suspected contamination from past land use, such as industrial operations, chemical and fuel storage, or asbestos from demolished structures. The quintessential eyesores blighting a given area, these sites may be left razed or vacant when the environmental liability of potential contamination could be prohibitively costly to investigate and remediate for future use. While brownfields previously occupied by dry cleaners or gas stations dot suburban and rural communities, most brownfields are encountered in historic industrial districts, often nestled in desirable central urban locations.

Renovations at The Avant-Garde (right) in Webster Station are nearly complete; its vacant neighbor will soon follow suit.

For almost two decades since the enactment of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980—otherwise known as CERCLA or Superfund, many developers have appropriately avoided brownfields and the associated liability burdens. By the turn of the century, however, federal and state agencies have implemented accommodating programs and attractive incentives for both municipal and private partners transforming troubled brownfields. Recently, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) celebrated the 25th anniversary of its Voluntary Action Program (VAP), responsible for supporting several high-profile urban revitalization success stories in metropolitan centers including Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton. Similar initiatives in other midwestern states have likewise facilitated proven paths to the sensible reuse of brownfields.

Pictured in its pre-renovation state (top), The Avant-Garde offers attractive office spaces to meet increasing demand.

Brownfields can be ideal urban development sites. As rust belt metropolitan areas compete to attract tech, medical, and green industry, historic industrial neighborhoods and their remnants of heydays past are repurposed. These revitalization projects can satisfy the high demand for resurging mixed-use communities, appealing historic character, proximity to public transportation, increasing sustainability infrastructure, and community building opportunities without increased ecological pressure from suburban expansion.

Newly constructed flats (left) and renovated lofts (right) in Webster Station.

While it may seem counterintuitive to take on a property with environmental baggage, so to speak, it’s important to consider the potential of an informed approach to off-set some of the associated costs. The returns on typically lower land costs in promising urban neighborhoods and tax incentives for urban revitalization can subsidize the planned costs to investigate and reuse brownfields. Moreover, various federal and state programs award grants to minimize  investigation and remediation costs, and some programs, such as Ohio’s Voluntary Action Program (VAP), can even reduce future environmental liability through voluntary assessment and clean-up.

Masons lay the brick facade for a new office building constructed on part of the former GM campus repurposed through VAP.

An essential element of urban revitalization is a thorough and nuanced environmental site assessment performed by a firm with extensive experience with similarly complex sites. A cookie-cutter assessment of a brownfield property can have disastrous consequences for this kind of project. Unexpected clean-up, endless sampling and delineations, or enforcement trouble with the EPA are the nightmare scenarios lurking beneath overlooked or overblown brownfield contamination issues. Urban revitalization success stories, however, start with responsive site assessments that dive deep into potential problems and recommend precise solutions that keep great development opportunities on the table.

CBC Engineers & Associates’ team of environmental scientists and professionals leverage decades of experience to specialize in critical assessments of brownfields and provide targeted solutions to move projects forward. CBC continues to provide comprehensive environmental support for clients as they capitalize on urban revitalization opportunities, especially in Dayton’s thriving development centers where brownfields are quite common. To learn how CBC can help with your project, contact Ed Galaska at (937) 428-6150 or by email.