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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Going Brown (When Going Green is Bad)

In my previous post, I wrote about the ponzi scheme that most municipalities fall into by investing public dollars for infrastructure improvements so that developers can build strip malls and big-box stores on greenfields and that ultimately fail in the long term to return on the public’s investment in them.  I said that there are typically two factors that work symbiotically to discourage brownfield development in favor of greenfield development.  They are: haste to start building; and inflexible, outdated zoning and land development ordinances.  Here is how this dysfunction happens.

(photo credit: London [Ontario] Free Press)
First, developers are understandably in a hurry to get their bulldozers rolling over a site so that Walmart can have their next grand opening as soon as possible.  Then the developers lull the government officials into thinking that there is a big competition for them to commit to infrastructure improvements on which their long-term payback will be less than $1 on the dollar.  A local politician would not want their constituents to think that the next town down the road scored the fancy, new strip mall because their own leaders could not come up with a suitable public infrastructure subsidy package to lure that same developer.  The result is new commercial spaces – be they retail or warehouses – that are only 50-60% occupied because their developer forged ahead based on opportunity rather than on market demand.

(photo credit: http://www.sonorannews.com)
Second, our municipal zoning ordinances often prohibit intelligent redevelopment of existing properties.  Sure, variances can be granted by the local zoning hearing board to allow a new use for an existing developed property, but it might add another year to the planning and review phase of the project before ground could be broken.  Most developers won’t wait that long to redevelop an existing parcel.  So they’ll go after a readily available greenfield and look for a government hand-out to subsidize the big-box boondoggle they are dreaming of plopping on a cornfield.

(photo credit:  http://www.capturelehighvalley.com)
The solution is for our local governments to amend their zoning and land development ordinances to be flexible enough to accommodate redevelopment of sites with something other than the exact thing that had been built there for 60 years ago and prospered for the first 40, struggled for 10, and has been sitting as a vacant eyesore for the past 10 years. If a commercial or industrial property’s previous use ran its course and that use is no longer viable for that community, why wouldn’t the community open its mind to a different use that could be viable for the next 60 years?

Brownfield development is nothing new.  By now, I suppose that most states have cleanup laws that were written specifically to grant environmental liability protection to entities that purchase a contaminated property and cleans it up.  My own state of Pennsylvania was one of the leaders in developing a realistic regulatory framework to help get environmentally compromised properties back on the tax rolls and employing people.

As an environmental consultant, over the past 15 years I’ve been involved in obtaining environmental liability relief for more than two dozen sites in Pennsylvania.  Obtaining liability relief for a site, also known as getting closure for the site, simply means getting the site cleaned up sufficiently so there are no remaining threats to human health or the environment and so the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can close their file on the property.

Sites do not have to be cleaned up to pristine conditions; their owners simply have to eliminate any contaminant pathways to human or ecological receptors.  After delineating the bounds of the contamination in the soil, sometimes installing a simple concrete or asphalt cap on the soil is sufficient to prevent humans from coming into contact with the residual contaminants and to prevent rainwater from leaching the contaminants down into the groundwater.  And sometimes the closure process is nothing more than collecting enough samples to prove that there are no contaminants present at concentrations above their cleanup standards for soil or groundwater.  Usually it’s just environmental science, not rocket science.

I should also say that I’m not completely opposed to government subsidies for development projects.  If the cost-benefit analysis shows an acceptable return on the taxpayers’ investment, why not?  However, I think you’re more likely to see a reasonable return on investment from updating existing utilities or infrastructure to facilitate redevelopment of a brownfield than you would building new utilities or infrastructure to accommodate building on a greenfield.
You can teach an old dog new tricks.  When Bethlehem Steel shuttered operations at their flagship plant in Bethlehem, PA, in the mid-1990s, the city rallied to create a renaissance at the dilapidated, 100+ year old industrial property. (photo credit: http://kgurban.com/new/beth.html)

The brownfields are there, and they already have utilities.  They already have roads in front 
of them with people driving past them.  Many already have rail lines adjacent to them to move either freight or commuters in and out.  Let’s use the infrastructure that we already have in place and let the greenfields alone to continue to recycle our carbon dioxide into oxygen.  Building a new big box with a 4-acre parking lot on top of a fallow farm field does not do a thing to mitigate our carbon footprint.  But it does create a need to extend utilities and roads that taxpayers will have to start maintaining in 10 years when the developer is long gone.

Concertgoers gather for a show at the base of the former Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces in the heart of the new SteelStacks arts and cultural center in Bethlehem, PA.  (photo credit: http://www.philadelphiafed.org/community-development/publications/cascade/81/03_keys-to-success-for-small-industrial-cities.cfm)
The former Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces were retained as an historical and cultural monument in the heart of the new SteelStacks arts and cultural center in Bethlehem, PA.  (photo credit: http://www.philadelphiafed.org/community-development/publications/cascade/81/03_keys-to-success-for-small-industrial-cities.cfm)


  1. It is quite interesting that Northampton County would consider a centralized Human Services facility in the Bethlehem Township. This facility should be located close to those that need those services the most. This is an example of Government promoting green development over brown.

    On another topic, it does say something about the state of affairs when a "monument" such as the Lehigh Valley Dairy property seated at the Gateway to Allentown does not have the POLITICAL winds to get Federal or State funding to make that site shovel ready. This property is within ¼ mile of 18,000 residents and is close to Lehigh Valley busiest intersection of Route 22 and Route 145, arguably the western Gateway to the Lehigh Valley. It has been vacant/under-utilized for 22+ years.

    Core communities should not be defined by municipal designations or municipal boundaries on a map.

    -PG from Lehigh County

  2. On January 27, 1989, the Lehigh County Dairy shutter its doors at N 7th Street at the border between Whitehall and Allentown. At that time, it provided family sustaining jobs to 270 employees. That is a hell of a lot of walkable jobs and not a penny of Stimulus dollars were available to make this site shovel ready. Tomorrow, January 27 marks 24 years since the Dairy's doors were shuttered.

    PG from Lehigh County