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Turning Brownfields into Parks

The below article excerpt, coauthored by Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue, was originally published in the December 2011 issue of  Planning magazine. The full article is available here.

Back in 1975, the rusted pipes and immense corroded tanks of Seattle's Gasworks Park seemed bizarre and incongruous against its verdant lawns. If old factory brownfields were repellent, and green parks were alluring, how could the two ever mate? But the imaginative flash by landscape architect Richard Haag broke that mold, and the reuse of that polluted property gave rise to an icon.

Seattle's revolutionary Gas Works Park. Photo Credit flickr user Wildcat Dunny.

More than three decades later and 2,400 miles away a new icon is emerging in the city of Houston, also on a former brownfield. Twelve-acre Discovery Green is not only restoring ecological life to a blighted area but is also stimulating the kind of downtown redevelopment the city hasn't seen in over half a century. Thirteen months after the park opened in 2008, apartments started renting at One Park Place, a luxury building across the street—the first downtown high-rise constructed in the city since the 1950s. This summer a 28,000-square-foot grocery store opened, another downtown event not witnessed during most residents' lifetimes.

But the road from Gasworks Park to Discovery Green has been a bumpy one. Despite the existence of hundreds of thousands of urban brownfields — patches of earth contaminated by previous uses – the vast majority have not become parks. In a more common plotline, the demise of an urban factory results in a fenced property that sits vacant for decades and, if lucky, gets rebuilt as some other structure.

When it comes to brownfields, the typical focus is on industrial and commercial reuse of the battered properties. The Gas Works model is different, and its value is now being proved in Houston. Discovery Green's $182 million cost has already been far surpassed by the $500 million of private development in its orbit.

Discovery Green has turned a brownfield into an economic catalyst for downtown Houston. Photo Credit David A. Brown.

This concept – brownfield parks spurring workplaces and residences around the periphery – could become very big in the coming decades. In a few cases it has already worked. Minneapolis, focusing on revitalization of its Mississippi Central Riverfront, removed toxins left from its milling and shipping industries to create Mill Ruins Park. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has calculated that its $55 million investment in parks in the brownfield-laden area, along with $150 million in other public improvements, has leveraged $1.2 billion in private investment.

The result: 8,300 jobs preserved and another 1,300 created. The riverfront now boasts 3,000 new residential units, as well as expanded commercial and entertainment space.

A long and winding path

The large number of orphan brownfields is partly an unintended consequence of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), colloquially known as Superfund. The law gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to respond directly to hazardous waste releases and to force cleanups according to a "strict, retroactive, joint and several" liability system. This structure meant that even parties with peripheral involvement in a site could be burdened with cleanup costs.

While the legislation helped clean up a few of the most egregious brownfield sites, it left the bulk of them unused.

Only brownfield properties with extraordinary economic potential—minor contamination combined with a prime location, categorized as Tier I—overcame developers' liability concerns without government assistance. As interest in downtown revitalization grew in the 1990s, and as developers' complaints about harsh brownfield laws sharpened, EPA began to revise its legal and financial framework, moving more hard-to-remedy Tier II and Tier III properties towards productive uses.

The first step, in 1994, was the Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative, which offered grants of up to $200,000 to communities to facilitate their conversion to economic productivity. A greater change came in 2002 with the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act, which exempted prospective owners from liability and set up a more transparent system for current owners to undertake site inquiry. The law also authorized $200 million for citywide assessments, site planning, remediation, and revolving loans. It also appropriated funds to establish state programs.

To date, the EPA has provided more than $850 million through 1,895 assessment grants, 279 revolving loan funds, and 752 cleanup grants.

Actions at the state level may be more significant. Many states now allow voluntary cleanup programs based on the proposed use of a site. Upon completion and approval of what is known as a "risk-based corrective action," the landowner receives a "covenant not to sue" or a "no further action" letter, guaranteeing that the state will refrain from future legal action over past contamination.

The new laws, combined with the economic repercussions from the 2008 real estate collapse, appear to be freeing up some of the value that has been frozen in Tiers II and III brownfields for years. Particularly significant is the fact that remediation for parks is generally less stringent and less expensive than remediation for housing. (There are, however, some skeptics who claim that state voluntary cleanup programs made too many concessions to developers, and that places children play should not be held to a lesser standard than residential areas.)

A surprise

Today, even some Tier I properties that formerly would have been redeveloped as housing and offices are being turned into parks. This is win-win for the EPA, whose mission includes both remediation of pollution and reduction of land consumption on the urban fringe. (A 2001 study by researchers at the EPA and George Washington University found that, on average, for each acre of urban brownfield land redeveloped, 4.5 acres of outlying green space are preserved.)

There is plenty of data to substantiate the power of parks. In his book, The Proximate Principle: The Impact of Parks, Open Space and Water Features on Residential Property Values and the Property Tax Base, Texas A&M University professor John Crompton cites 25 studies that record increased property values around the perimeter of parks. In some cases, the economic impact can be measured as far as 2,000 feet away. Removing industrial blight has other impacts: EPA has documented property value improvements of two to three percent within a one-mile radius of a cleaned up brownfield, even without turning it into a park.

Best is doing both. One study projected that cleaning a brownfield in the Lincoln neighborhood of Kenosha, Wisconsin, would result in a 1.7 to 6.2 percent rise in property values, but cleaning it and then turning it into a park would boost home values by 3.4 percent to 10 percent.

The value of brownfields-to-parks transformations is potentially huge, but these projects are not yet entirely self-sufficient. It is still difficult to secure funding for the early stages of brownfield development—planning, site investigation, and remediation—so those doing the conversions continue to rely on the support of EPA, states, and in some cases, cities themselves (which can sometimes help out with financial incentives or tax breaks).

Nonprofit organizations such as The Trust for Public Land, Groundwork USA, and the Center for Creative Land Recycling sometimes also catalyze projects, by engaging the community and working to fill funding gaps. Trust for Public Land vice president Ernest Cook noted that his nonprofit works to secure funding "based on the idea that parks provide myriad social, environmental, and economic benefits to the community."

Continue to the full article, with case studies from Newark, Columbus, and Houston.