Reclaim the 'brownfields' and renew the city

September 09, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

THE FOCUS ON President Clinton's colorful train ride and the Democratic convention eclipsed, for most people, his latest proposal to deal with the nation's 400,000 to 600,000 lightly polluted ''brownfield'' sites -- areas below the serious contamination level of Superfund locations.

Before a trainside crowd in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Mr. Clinton laid out a new four-year, $300 million program to help states and cities identify brownfield sites, develop plans to clean them up, get businesses involved and set up revolving loan funds to cover costs.

The nation, said the president, needs to ''clean up these urban toxic-waste sites and turn them into homes for safe businesses that create jobs in areas that thought they would never get any new jobs again.''

In fact, he said, ''the most important thing that I am working on with the mayors of America today is cleaning up these brownfields.''

30,000 renewed sites

Last January, Mr. Clinton asked Congress to authorize $2 billion worth of tax credits for private firms that agree to finance brownfields cleanups -- a measure the Treasury Department predicts would revive 30,000 brownfield sites and leverage $10 billion in private investment.

Last year, Environmental Protection Administrator Carol Browner launched pilot programs in 50 cities to get local governments, investors and regulators focused on reprocessing brownfields for economic development.

Of course it all makes sense -- a competitive America simply can't let vast tracts of unproductive property continue to blight its cities.

Yet just three years ago most people had never heard the word ''brownfields.'' It surely failed to register on national political radar.

Why the change? Democrats, it seems, see in brownfield cleanups a way to look after city interests without massive public spending. Republicans are attracted to the idea of lifting the hand of heavy government regulation. Mayors hope to revive dead and deserted parts of their cities. Businessmen see good land deals dancing before their eyes.

Some environmentalists are wary, fearing lands will too quickly be given clean bills of health, approved for reuse, when unknown contaminants might later raise health issues.

Other conservationists, however, see ground for compromise and a chance to address an issue the mainstream environmental movement blithely ignored for years -- regulations so stiff that they forced development to the suburbs, gobbling up open space while stifling inner-city rebirth.

As the Environmental Protection Agency has loosened the grip of federal regulation, state action has ballooned. Washington-based policy analyst Clement Dinsmore reports in the June issue of Urban Land magazine that California, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin are among the states that have adopted major initiatives in the last two years.

The states are moving to limit liability for buyers of brownfields, to make cleanup standards more flexible, to induce prompt and clear decisions by regulators. Minnesota's program, the oldest, has recycled 1,500 acres since 1992.

Attention is going into more discriminating standards -- tougher for parks or residential areas, more lenient for paved-over factory or commercial sites. Two of the country's largest outlet shopping malls are being built on brownfields in Carson, California, and Elizabeth, New Jersey, that no one would consider for homes.

New venture-capital pools have formed to recapture brownfields, PTC reports Mr. Dinsmore. New sources of credit are forming. The Bank of America and others are interested in making credit available to new site owners. Lawyers, casualty insurers, environmental consultants and marketing firms are forming to offer ''one-stop'' shopping for the amalgam of services needed to revive and market brownfield properties.

Now powerful local collaboratives are forming. Chicago's Brownfields Forum, formed in 1993 to clear barriers to brownfields reuse, is moving step by step to expand brownfields acquisitions and redevelopment. City government, business, environmental and civic organizations are all involved.

And just this summer, a California Center for Land Recycling -- America's first statewide group to bring multiple stakeholders to the table to spur brownfields redevelopment -- was announced in Los Angeles. The Irvine Foundation is providing a three-year, $2 million start-up grant. The Trust for Public Land, with decades of experience in both city and countryside land finance and protection, is a partner.

Irvine Foundation president Dennis Collins said ''finding ways to reuse urban property is the greatest land-use challenge facing California and the nation.'' U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin dropped by to bless the event and champion the tax credit, which is still pending in Congress.

Identifying brownfields, of course, is one thing; making them into attractive, job-producing places is another, especially in cities wracked by job flight and crime. Still, in a country that so often seems paralyzed by its domestic problems, the drive for brownfields reform, developed with federal, state and city-based collaboration, may be a sign for better times.

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

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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