A brighter future in brownfields

For developers, chance to revitalize Baltimore emerges through cleanup and redevelopment of former industrial sites

January 26, 2004|By Michael English | Michael English,Special to SunSpot

There's no more land in Charm City.

City fathers say it's all gone: Every significant tract zoned for industrial and commercial use within city limits is either home to an active business, or was once used and now stands abandoned, unwanted or unusable.

That leaves developers keen on building in the city with few choices -- wait for a property vacancy in-town, look for real estate elsewhere, or opt for what's becoming a popular choice: building on a cleaned-up brownfield site.

Brownfield revitalization now is an essential element in the city's efforts to market Baltimore to companies that want to relocate here, but can't find vacant property on which to build. It is also another way to boost Baltimore's saggy industrial tax base.

"We have no greenfield sites in Baltimore," said Evans Paull, director of the Brownfields Initiative for the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC). "So, for the city to compete for new modern industry, we must be able to redevelop these old industrial sites."

This alternative has worked for many businesses. It also feeds a budding micro-economy that's being driven by citywide brownfield redevelopment. Since 1996, $300 million has been pumped into the local economy through citywide reclamation projects, with more to come, Paull said. He predicted that Baltimore brownfield redevelopment investment eventually will grow to as much as $100 million a year.

"The pace is quickening now," he said.

'Ahead of the game'

Since brownfield reclamation in the city began, according to Paull, more than 30 contaminated tracts have been successfully restored and redeveloped, creating more than 3,000 jobs. He added that BDC now has its sights set on 60 other city properties designated as brownfields. Those tracts total more than 2,000 acres, and will help to fill out the city's exhausted inventory of vacant industrial properties.

The BDC will make them available for new business development in Baltimore as they become available, Paull said.

As a result, Baltimore enjoys a growing national reputation among other cities and states eager to clone the city's achievements.

"We're probably a little bit ahead of the game, relative to where a lot of industrial cities are," Paull said, adding that BDC "has a longer list of successful projects than some of our counterparts."

Baltimore sets standard

Baltimore's expertise in brownfield redevelopment grew out of two major cleanup projects. The first was the successful 1996 reclamation of 30 acres at the Highland Marine Terminal in East Baltimore. In 1997, the second site cleanup started at American Can Co. in Canton.

"That was such a great project, everyone still points to it," Paull said.

It was the experience from those initial projects, he added, that helped to create the network of local expertise that now serves as the driving force behind Baltimore's ongoing brownfield accomplishments -- a diverse group representing the human, technological, regulatory and entrepreneurial know-how needed to tackle the challenges posed by urban brownfield reclamation.

"Baltimore developers are out there, beating the bushes, working the regulatory programs and finding the projects," Paull said.

Besides BDC, which coordinates much of the city's brownfield reclamation efforts, the network includes environmental assessment and cleanup firms, commercial lenders, real estate brokers and developers. State officials with Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) also are heavily involved in the process of identifying and reclaiming brownfield sites.

Incentives created

The term "brownfield" was developed more than 30 years ago. It refers to an abandoned or underused parcel of property where redevelopment is complicated by contamination -- real or perceived -- with some type of pollutant. Brownfield sites include abandoned factories, commercial buildings, solvent or fuel-storage facilities, manufacturing centers and dry cleaners -- any site where a past business used potentially harmful chemicals.

Some brownfield sites are redeveloped for residential use, but most become office, commercial or industrial business centers. Federal and state programs support brownfield reclamation and revitalization by offering assessment, cleanup and development assistance, including grants and low-interest loans.

Despite its overarching economic success, Baltimore's brownfield reclamation movement is brimming with an assortment of social, environmental and legal complexities. One of the most vexing problems remains concern among landowners, developers, lawmakers, community residents and environmentalists over liability. State and federal brownfield laws most times protect developers, but not property owners.

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