Brownfields: eyesore or opportunity?

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Minute Maid Park, the Downtown Aquarium and the Federal Reserve Bank are all examples of how the City of Houston is cleaning up and reusing local brownfields to create positive impacts on the community through its Brownfields Redevelopment Program. Brownfields are properties where redevelopment is complicated by the presence or perceived presence of environmental contamination. These sites were, in many cases, once industrial facilities that are now abandoned buildings or vacant lots. However, a large number of brownfields are also associated with common community commercial activities, such as abandoned service stations or dry cleaners.

The recession of the oil industry in the mid-1980’s put a number of local companies out of business, forcing them to close plants. Many of these sites are now brownfields. Officials estimate Houston could potentially have hundreds or even thousands of Brownfields.

The potential costs and liabilities of cleaning up these properties has been a significant barrier to redevelopment. Once thought of as wasted parcels of land, advances in technology and remediation methods in addition to the development of public programs are putting concerns at ease, paving the way for numerous success stories.

The City of Houston’s Brownfields Redevelopment Program promotes urban revitalization by developing interest and economic opportunity in the city’s brownfields as it continues to struggle with sprawl. Through a multifaceted approach, the program is a mechanism for driving cleanup and redevelopment of properties designated as brownfields that can be used for commercial building, multifamily residences, greenspace and recreation while generating new employment opportunities and benefiting the local community.

The program is funded by EPA grants awarded to the City of Houston. In order to receive assistance, developers and local property owners voluntarily enter their property into the program. Program benefits include free environmental site assessments and facilitated participation in the State’s Voluntary Cleanup Program. Phase I assessments can cost as much as $5,000 and Phase II assessments can reach up to $60,000. Currently, there are more than 40 sites enrolled in the program whereby, 14 projects have been completed and 26 are in different stages of assessment, cleanup and development.

The city currently has more than $500,000 that needs to be spent for the program and program directors are eager to see this money well spent. David Reel with the program, says that in many cases after an assessment is completed no cleanups are required. Moreover, he claims that without these funds in place much redevelopment activity would not take place.

The greatest challenge facing the program is simply getting its message to the public. According to Rives Taylor, research scientist with the Houston Advanced Research Center, the program is a great resource for Houston. Education, he says, will be a key ingredient for small scale builders, developers and designers to see what the real implications are of an older warehouse or factory.

Success:

The Environmental Protection Agency has designated the City of Houston as a Brownfields Showcase Community. This means that other cities can look to Houston for leadership on how to implement the program within their own communities. Through this program more than 550 acres of brownfields have been reused while creating more than 2,500 jobs. In doing so, more than $720 million has been leveraged in public sector investment, more than $14.9 million in public sector financing and more than $1.6 million has been collected in delinquent taxes.

Reel notes that even beyond the aesthetic changes that redevelopment can bring, property values can increase substantially. He maintains that before Minute Maid Park was constructed, the 38.5 acre property was in complete disarray. For more than nine decades the site was home to a railroad station, repair facilities and a warehouse. More than just a dilapidated piece of land, the site was contaminated with lead, chromium and several volatile organic compounds among other things. Redevelopment of this property he says, substantially increased nearby property values by as much as 500 percent.

The most recent efforts of program officials have resulted in assistance to local non-profits and community development organizations to provide affordable housing and senior citizens housing.

“We are always looking for opportunities to use the program’s funds… to help stimulate the local desire to redevelop Brownfields which may be adversely impacting Houston’s communities,” says Reel.

Links to Environment

The program’s opportunities come at a time when sprawl is having profound effects on communities and the local economy as greater strain is put on environmental resources and consumer spending. New development necessitates building new roads, expanding highways increasing traffic and pollution. As a result green space is lost.

The combination of these factors has led communities to look at abandoned or decrepit parcels of land as not just another blemish on an otherwise fair landscape but more as an opportunity.

David Crossley, President of the Gulf Coast Institute, stresses the benefits of the program as it preserves the surrounding natural areas around the city by keeping development concentrated in urban areas. It’s win win, he says.

Today, Houston’s Brownfields are no longer being stymied by ill perception but are now being used as golf courses and world class entertainment, dining and living. The reuse of brownfields is becoming an important element in Houston’s downtown revitalization.

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