Monday, May 12, 2008

Green lights for brownfields development?

   Among the many hurdles to revitalizing the central city is the problem of brownfields.  Sites that used to hold industry or commerce may be contaminated with hazardous materials, which both makes development unattractive and may impose tremendous environmental cleanup costs to the current owner.  All of this encourages new development outside the central city, and exacerbates the problems of unused land in the central city.

Detroit    The latest National Brownfields Conference was held last week in Detroit, a city that has been infamous, of course, for its abandoned industrial spaces, shrinking population, and social problems.  Just a glance at a picture of Detroit’s riverfront shows the errors of the past –- the hulking Renaissance Center of the 1970s (now the home of General Motors), standing like a blank fortress, isolated from the dangerous city below.   Modern brownfield plans are more subtle, using various techniques to transform places such as old warehouses and machine shops into lofts, stores, and small businesses.  A essential key to the efforts is government, which has both assuaged the financial penalties for being the owner of contaminated property (the federal Superfund act was amended a few years ago to encourage the purchase of land known to hold some contamination) and can provide tax breaks for cleanups and urban redevelopment.

Some of the more interesting sessions at the conference (I couldn’t make it) included how to establish good communication with community stakeholders (something too often ignored by developers in decades past) and using natural biological processes to help clean up contaminants.

   Now is the time for urban redevelopment.  With crimes rates down, land prices reasonable, and high gas prices making people look longingly to short commutes, it’s now or never for places such as Detroit to make their big comebacks.

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