Derelict Land, If Not Recycled, Will Cast Blight on Its Entire Region

NEAL R. PEIRCE

August 16, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- To some, the problem of vacant space in our older factory cities and suburbs is environmental ''red-lining.'' Builders, lenders, corporations and insurers systematically reject urban sites where even the slightest hint of industrial contamination exists.

Others call it the ''brown-fields'' problem -- that instead of recycling sites where the Industrial Revolution in America was born, places where much of our national wealth was generated and much of our history written, developers keep heading out for exurban ''green-fields.''

Then there's the new acronym TOADS -- Temporarily Obsolete Abandoned Derelict Sites. Michael Greenberg and Frank Popper of Rutgers University thought up TOADS to describe the urban land that's hit the bottom of the land-use cycle: closed factories, boarded-up housing projects, abandoned rail lines, tracts of neglected land.

Mr. Greenberg says the thought of TOADS came to him looking out the window of an Amtrak train at Chester, Pa., just south of Philadelphia, as he viewed the unsightly melange of a giant incinerator, refineries, junkyards, abandoned plants and derelict housing.

Virtually every American ''citistate,'' whether in its inner city or old industrial suburbs or both, is pocked with brown-fields/TOADS. We have all seen them, and flinched, whether the sight is a skeletal New England factory town or a ravaged Midwest rust-belt city.

With startling frequency, these areas are found close to neighborhoods of poor people, especially minorities. They are hideous icons of our throw-away civilization.

At Cleveland State University's College of Urban Affairs, I was reminded this summer that brown-fields may seem local problems but in reality have region-wide impact.

If Cleveland city and surrounding Cuyahoga County can't make more land available by solving the brown-fields problem, experts noted, industrial development will be forced farther onto green-fields, undermining the city and county tax bases and triggering more sprawl.

A chief villain, say critics, is the 13-year-old federal Superfund law and its state counterparts, which establish ''joint and several'' liability for any corporation, individual or government that's ever owned even a tiny piece of a polluted site. The result is a field day for trial lawyers and paralysis in efforts to recruit new owner-developers for the most mildly suspicious site.

Several states are considering reforms, including assurance that a good-faith buyer of a recycled site can't be held liable for environmental dangers that surface later.

No one wants to gut today's environmental laws. The object, critics claim, is more rapid recycling, after taking reasonable safeguards, and less litigious wrangling that leaves sites in limbo for decades.

Our international citistate competitors, from Tokyo to London to Paris to Berlin, not only recycle old industrial lands more rapidly than we do, they make clean-up efforts ''a focal point'' of metropolitan planning, says Robert Yarrow, executive director of the New York Regional Plan Association.

Mr. Yarrow points to more than 12 years of intense effort to clean up the London Docklands and East Thames area. Paris metropolitan authorities, he notes, are intent on reclaiming former industrial areas along the Seine. Berlin is now anxious to bring back the old port on the Spree River.

Reclaimed brown-fields won't, on their own, save urban areas wracked by severe crime and high taxes. But recycled lands could translate into more tax receipts for the hard-hit city or older suburb.

They would mean more jobs for low-income city residents who find themselves cruelly cut off from job opportunities in the new ''edge cities'' and distant green-field sites.

If experience around the world says smart recycling of land relates to building economically and socially strong citistates, isn't it time for us to get with it.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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