Brownfield Resurrection

The combination of GIS and the Internet is helping federal, state and local governments turn abandoned brownfields into valuable real estate.

by / May 1, 2002
In 1988, Ware Shoals, S.C., lost its largest employer, a move that sent the town reeling. Since 1902, the massive textile mill had hummed with activity and provided employment for the 2,500 residents of the small town, which sits on the banks of the Saluda River in the western part of the state. "We were a single industry community," recalled Grant Duffield, the town's administrator. When the company, Riegel Textile Corp., pulled out, Ware Shoals was left with an abandoned 27-acre site in the center of town. But that was just the beginning of the problem. Along with skyrocketing unemployment, crime soared and those who could leave town moved away. What remained was a community on its knees, where 37 percent of the children were living in poverty.

The abandoned property was a classic brownfield site, scarred by decades of contamination. In 1995, the property owners agreed to turn the site over to the town without incurring liability for the cleanup. By 1998, Ware Shoals decided to redevelop the property and, with help from the Environmental Protection Agency, which designated it a brownfield assessment demonstration pilot site, received $200,000 to assess its cleanup needs and development potential.

Some of the funds have been used to populate a geographic information system with location data concerning pollution sources and plans for redevelopment. With the property located next to a scenic stretch of the Saluda River, town officials hope to attract commercial and residential development and help revive the local economy. And while Duffield doesn't want to overstate the benefits that technology has played in the mill site's renewal, it's clear GIS has had a major impact. "Without the technology, tackling a project of this magnitude would be impossible," he said.

The story of Ware Shoals and its brownfield is far from over. But it is indicative of a new attitude toward the nation's brownfields, where communities are viewing the once-abandoned sites not as eyesores, or ticking time bombs of contamination, but as potential real estate, ripe for development. New legislation that has eased certain liabilities concerning pollution and federal grants that can be leveraged for economic development, are turning brownfields into property goldmines for a growing number of communities. The combination of GIS and the Internet is helping all this happen.

Brownfield Perceptions

There are as many as 600,000 brownfields in the United States covering several million acres of land. While many people picture abandoned brick factories reeking of pollution when they hear the term, brownfields are actually considered to be any abandoned or underused industrial or commercial property. "Many brownfields don't have problems, but have a perception of a problem," said Greg Jordan, a brownfield liaison for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

That perception dates back to when government's only concern about these sites was whether or not they were contaminated. Brownfields were viewed strictly as an environmental issue. But when the economic boom of the '90s got under way and a number of cities began to enjoy a resurging interest in urban life, attitudes toward brownfields began to shift toward their development potential.

This recent shift in concern is reflected in the fact that state brownfield programs have been operating for less than a decade, according to the National Governors Association. In 1995, the EPA launched the Brownfield Initiative, a national program that has removed a number of barriers to the cleanup and development of brownfield sites. Property owners no longer were held legally and financially responsible if they had nothing to do with the pollution when they purchased a brownfield property.

Although the liability issue isn't entirely gone, the situation today is much better than it was in the '80s. Helping the matter is the EPA's more collaborative role with other federal agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and with state and local governments in helping to assess, clean up and reuse brownfield sites.

In January, President George W. Bush signed legislation that doubled the funds available -- to $200 million -- to help cities and states clean up brownfield sites. In addition, the president's budget proposed a permanent extension to the Brownfield Tax Incentive, which encourages the redevelopment of brownfields.

The surge in federal support comes in the wake of growing interest among cities and states in revitalizing these abandoned sites around the country. For example, a 2000 survey of 187 cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that by cleaning up existing brownfield sites and returning the areas to production, cities could generate as many as 540,000 new jobs. And at least 175 cities estimated brownfield redevelopment could generate up to $2.4 billion in local tax revenue.

The EPA is helping communities return brownfields to active use by funding pollution assessments of sites -- with grants generally in the range of $200,000 -- and once a site is deemed clean enough for development, issuing a memo of understanding that states the EPA will leave a developer alone to pursue redevelopment of the site, unless something significant reappears. According to the EPA's Jordan, there are different degrees of cleanup, depending on what the site will be used for. If a site is designated for commercial use, the level of cleanup isn't going to be nearly as high as it would be if the site was going to be converted into apartments, he pointed out. "We try to lower hurdles and make it easier to get to a solution while protecting the environment," said Jordan.

Brownfield Technology

As cities and states shift their emphasis on brownfields from environmental issues to development potential, the role of technology has grown. Communities want to know what other communities are doing in terms of cleanup and redevelopment, and developers are eager to know what properties are available and the potential economic value of the site based on its location. The public is also interested in learning what's going to happen with an abandoned site and what alternatives are available for development.

The chief tool for collecting, analyzing and presenting information on brownfields is GIS. With its ability to link geographic reference points with various types of data and then overlay the information on an electronic map, GIS has become the technology of choice for state and local officials trying to solve brownfield problems.

In 1997, New York City began using GIS to determine which of the city's industrial zoned properties were vacant and suitable for redevelopment. By overlaying local political boundaries, city officials were able to identify and approach local community groups and enlist their help in deciding which properties to clean and develop first, as well as find out how the local groups wanted to see the properties developed: for commercial, residential or recreational purposes.

In Boston, the city's redevelopment agency has been using GIS extensively to help developers learn what brownfield sites are available and what sort of federal or state funding exists. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) currently lists 50 publicly owned sites and, through its Boston Atlas Web site, lets developers view and analyze the sites' potential. "Our GIS shows each lot's potential with multiple layers of information about transportation, utilities, commercial, manufacturing or residential activity in the area," said Noah Luskin, BRA's brownfields coordinator. What the GIS doesn't show is the extent of possible contamination at each site. "Our objective is to show the sites' value, not its liability," he explained.

One of the earliest examples of a city using GIS to clean and redevelop brownfields is Emeryville, Calif., a small industrial city surrounded by Berkeley and Oakland. Once bustling with business, Emeryville was in a steep economic decline by the 1980s. A host of manufacturing firms pulled out and left behind numerous brownfield sites, some more contaminated than others. At its lowest point, Emeryville had 20 percent of its non-residential property vacant and 40 percent underutilized.

Using a grant from the EPA, Emeryville started a project to monitor groundwater in 1996. The data was mapped using ESRI's ArcInfo software. In addition, the city added map layer information, including street names, property owner information and site management information about brownfield sites. With the data, city officials were able to show regulators and developers that Emeryville's groundwater wasn't as polluted as originally believed. Developers could analyze the maps and locate sites based on their potential for residential, commercial and retail use.

The result has been an incredible development of a once moribund area. Since 1996, Emeryville has added more than 500 housing units, 3.6 million square feet of office space, 830,000 square feet of retail space, 488 hotel rooms and more than 8,000 jobs. Amtrak built a new train station, Pixar Animation Studios developed a 13-acre site, and Swedish home furnishing giant IKEA built a 275,000 square foot store on the site of a former steel mill.

Aware of the power of GIS in providing information for developers, regulators and concerned citizens, Emeryville city officials began putting their GIS maps on the Internet for wider access in 1999. Using ESRI's MapObjects software, they created "One-Stop-Shop", an online, interactive map service.

The Web site shows land parcels using aerial photography, street maps and property owner information, along with chemical concentrations in the soil for each land parcel and chemical concentrations found in groundwater at that location.

According to Ignacio Dayrit, Emeryville's brownfields project director, the site has been a huge benefit for developers who want to see what's going on in terms of real estate activity and the environmental records for a land parcel. But the Web site has also assisted government regulators. "They like having information on contamination that's easy to access rather than in paper files," he said. "They really value the content that we've put out there."

Brownfields Around the Nation

Cities aren't the only ones using GIS and the Internet to display information about brownfields. Many states have developed interactive sites to provide the public with information. For example, New Jersey has launched I-MapNJso that developers and the public can consider brownfield redevelopment opportunities. The state's Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Information Technology, Office of State Planning, the Governor's Urban Coordinating Council and the Brownfields Redevelopment Task Force developed the site collaboratively. I-MapNJ uses ESRI's ArcIMS software and displays data according to a series of pre-selected questions, such as which brownfield sites exist within a specific municipality or within an incentive zone.

Massachusetts has taken a different tack and limits the use of GIS relating to brownfields to its staff of brownfield coordinators at the Department of Environmental Protection. One of the most popular features is an extension that allows coordinators to enter an address and have the GIS report back about whether the location is eligible for federal tax incentives or not and why. Under the $1.5 billion Brownfields Tax Incentive program, environmental cleanup costs for properties in targeted areas are fully deductible. These areas include EPA Brownfield Pilot areas, census tracts where 20 percent or more of the population is below the poverty level; or census tracts that have a population under 2,000 and have 75 percent or more of their land zoned for commercial or industrial use.

But as many state and local officials are finding out, interactive GIS Web sites are only as good as the data they contain. If the information is inaccurate or out of date, users will soon recognize the problems and limitations, and stop using the site. Prime culprits for old or inaccurate data are a city's own departments or agencies, who see little reason to share their data with a redevelopment agency. Several brownfield project managers complained about the lack of support in terms of data sharing.

"Keeping data updated is a huge issue," said one city official from Boston. "We don't have a good system for sharing information between agencies. It's done entirely on an informal basis."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor