Brownfields Are Just Untapped Assets

President Obama has made revitalizing local communities that have been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing a priority, said Jay Williams, the new White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, at the E.P.A.s’ Brownfields conference in Atlanta. Williams should know: He gained a reputation for leading a smart redevelopment program in Youngstown, Ohio, a manufacturing community that has suffered from “years of disinvestment and economic collapse.” At the Brownfields conference, Williams introduced a set of innovative mayors who are all at “the top of their game,” leading ambitious revitalization efforts through “energizing” brownfield redevelopment projects, all with major help from the private sector. As Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator at the E.P.A., pointed out, revitalization means “better communities, stronger economies, and an improved environment. It’s about getting all three.” And if redeveloped correctly, “brownfields can be transformed from eyesores into true assets that spur job growth and reduce air and water pollution.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said his city has taken advantage of E.P.A. area-wide brownfield planning grants to turn the City Hall East project from an abandoned site into a success. The City Hall East project is expected to transform an “eyesore” of a 2-million-square-foot distribution center just 5 minutes from downtown into a brand-new mixed-use project, with offices for technology firms, condos, and ground-floor retail. With tax credits, the private sector will put some quarter of a billion dollars into the project. City Hall East builds on a “strong legacy” of brownfield redevelopment in the city, especially the Atlantic Station project, a massive mixed-use community built on what was a highly polluted site near midtown (see image above). The site features loads of shops, condos, canals, and parks. Pretty impressive for an old brownfield site. The key to Atlantic Station’s success was an agreement between the local government, developers, and E.P.A. to co-finance aspects of the infrastructure, including a new bridge, which was viewed as necessary to create enough local connections to the development.

But perhaps the most exciting story coming from Atlanta is the coming transformation of a 22-mile ring of abandoned rail lines that circles Atlanta, running through more than 45 neighborhoods. Those abandoned tracks and brownfield sites are becoming the Atltanta Beltline, which will offer bike and walking trails along with a new light rail network, at a cost of some $2.8 billion over 20 years. Already, the Beltline team, which includes landscape architect Kevin Burke, ASLA, has opened a 7-mile chunk of the park network. Mayor Reed said “it’s been used 300 percent more than we thought it would.” Once the project is completed, some 1,200 acres of new green space will be added to the city, and a light rail will connect neighborhoods that have been historically inaccessible to each other. A truly stunning civic project for a southern city not always known for inclusive public works, the Beltline’s first pieces, like the 4th Ward Park below, are a sign of great things to come.

To show that private sector developers are equally as essential to brownfield redevelopment as the government, Scott Condra, president, Jacoby Development, spoke about how federal and local governments must help mitigate the risks facing the private sector in cleaning up some of these big sites. For example, he said that Atlanta’s Mayor Reed convinced Porsche to move its new headquarters in a former brownfield site near Aerotropolis Atlanta, the broader area around the Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Jacoby Development, which bought the land for $40 million, is now the developer behind the building, which will be designed by HOK. They are making the site work for Porsche “because the government set the stage. The infrastructure investment was critical.” He added that with Atlantic Station and other huge redevelopment projects he has been involved in, the city “narrowed the uncertainty.” For both Condra and Mayor Reed, “public private partnerships are critical.”

Other smart urban leaders also showed how to tap the private sector to make revitalization visions work. Mayor Terry Bellamy, Asheville, North Carolina, was able to convince Kraft Brewery to open a plant and offices in her town by showing them “our existing, coordinated plan” and where they could fit in. There were well-thought-out plans for riverfront revitalization and greenway development projects. She said Kraft wanted to see this first to determine how they could help with the revitalization efforts. “It was very important to them that a plan was already in place they could contribute to.” With neighboring communities, a broader regional development plan was even created to “preserve the local character” of Asheville. Interesting the town knew that to preserve the local character, they had to go think broader and go regional.

Mayor Mark Mallory from Cincinnati, Ohio, is also taking a regional approach to revitalization. He said his city is the base of three states and 15 counties, “some in Kentucky and some in Indiana.” He said this was basically the only way to think because “people don’t limit themselves to political subdivisions. They go where things are.”

In Cincinnati, the focus has been on cleaning up the Ohio River and redeveloping the brownfields along it. With a new stadium coming in, the city created the new Banks project, a 45-acre park along the riverfront, with mixed-used housing, retail, and museums coming in behind. The park and much of the redevelopment is also on top of a huge parking lot. Mayor Mallory said one of the benefits of this is that “if the river floods, it’s only the cars that are hit.” With all the new development, demand is now in place for a new $130 million street car network. “The goal will be to connect the riverfront with other neighborhoods. You need movement for success.”

All these leaders made the case for smart local planning that can only come out of a deep collaboration among the private, non-profit, and public sectors. Stanislaus said the E.P.A., Department of Transportation, and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), through their partnership for sustainable communities, are increasingly financing projects “where smart planning is already happening.” He believes “the level of collaboration really determines the level of success.”

Image credit: (1) Atlantic Station, Atlanta / Cooperation Conservation America, (2) Historic 4th Ward Park / Atlanta Beltline, (3) New Porsche Headquarters, Atlanta / HOK via Dexigner, (5) Cincinnati Banks project / Urban Cincy.

2 thoughts on “Brownfields Are Just Untapped Assets

  1. Hmmmmm 06/03/2013 / 8:39 am

    Love seeing these projects come to fruition. I can’t believe the changes in ATL.

  2. SevenSpheres 06/05/2013 / 9:06 am

    Great to see the recognition nationally on brownfields. It may be worth noting that it is the familiar pattern of urban renewal, but this time it is not hitting the social side as urban renewal clearance schemes did in the 50s and 60s to unempowered citizens. Instead, we’re now moving into a terrain (pardon the pun) in which we have to examine the question of whether our relationship to nature should go the same way. Has the equation shifted from “economic development > people” to “economic development > nature”? Perhaps the profession of landscape architecture is well placed to ensure that we have a sustainable balance between economics, people, and nature.

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