Interim Uses: Practical Solutions for Idle Brownfields

With 450,000 to 1 million brownfield sites across the United States, brownfields are an abundant yet often untapped resource that is readily available to cities and towns of all sizes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a brownfield as "a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant." In colloquial terms, a brownfield is a property that has real or perceived contamination that hinders redevelopment. By its very definition, brownfields deter developers and other potential purchasers. Contamination is a scary word for most people and rightly so; chemical spills can wreak havoc on the environment and have deleterious effects on human health. Purchasing a brownfield increases liability, involves expensive investigation and cleanup, and lengthy coordination with governmental agencies. These are some of the main reasons that so many brownfields sit idle and unused for long periods.

Unfortunately, these idle brownfields have well documented negative effects. These include depressed property values, reduced tax revenue, increased crime due to derelict/vacant lots, negative perception of a neighborhood, and human and environmental exposure to toxins. Since brownfields are located in virtually every US city, their negative impacts are quite widespread. Some of the most common brownfields include gas stations, dry cleaners, and auto shops.

In a perfect world, brownfield sites would be fully remediated and redeveloped for permanent use, but given the aforementioned obstacles, that doesn't always happen. Large scale projects and heavily contaminated properties take a long time to redevelop or may never be candidates for remediation and redevelopment due to financial restraints. In addition to typical real estate considerations such as title/ownership encumbrances, site plan, and cost of construction, developers must also consider the extent of contamination and cost for cleanup. Without a thorough assessment of contamination, developers can be left with a much more expensive cleanup than anticipated. This financial unknown is often enough to deter developers. Another obstacle to brownfield redevelopment is that sometimes it cannot start for months or years while the property is being cleaned up to an acceptable re-use standard.

Private owners and municipalities are now looking at a myriad of interim uses to improve these sites in ways that can generate some cash flow and contribute to the local community while a long term use is identified. This cash flow helps bridge the gap between acquisition and redevelopment, which makes brownfield remediation and redevelopment a more viable option. Interim use has other less tangible benefits such as improving the relationship between the property owner and government or local community, boosting interest in the site, and illustrating that the property is suitable for reuse. Interim uses can range from a one-time event, such as a festival to something longer term, like a pocket park or solar farm. Each brownfield is different and presents a unique set of opportunities and challenges; interim uses are certainly not one-size-fits-all. Several factors must be addressed before deciding on an interim use- including past uses, level of contamination, existing infrastructure, zoning, and cost to convert the brownfield to its interim use. Some successful interim uses of brownfield sites are listed below.

Greenspace: Converting vacant lots or dilapidated buildings into greenspace is economically viable because it does not require the construction of infrastructure. Additionally, greenspace has many psychological and social benefits. Research shows that views of vegetation in public housing and low-income neighborhoods reduces crime and improves people’s mental state. It can also improve worker productivity and lead to a better perception of businesses located near greenspace. Greenspace can also reduce the urban heat island effect by providing shade, deflecting the sun's radiation, and releasing moisture into the atmosphere. Greenspace may double as a remediation method if phytoremediation, the use of plants to remove, immobilize, or detoxify contaminants, is implemented. Depending on the contaminants, phytoremediation is significantly cheaper than alternative remedial practices.

Brightfields (solar projects): Brownfields often include former industrial sites that have an existing power infrastructure allowing for less costly transmission for energy generated from a solar array. Many brownfields are located near or within high-density areas, making them ideally situated for solar power generation. The EPA has identified over 80,000 brownfields and contaminated lands that could be utilized for renewable energy generation. Due to the higher infrastructure costs of power generation projects, this use would likely be long term compared to other interim uses listed.

Agriculture: While soil contamination often precludes agricultural land use, it is not impossible. The EPA has published a set of guidelines for safe gardening practices on brownfields to help overcome challenges with this type of reuse. Agricultural reuse of brownfields has actually been quite successful. For example, while waiting on the construction of a multi-use high rise, a Vancouver company decided to bring in clean soil and convert a blighted gas station and dry cleaner into community gardens, which greatly benefited the community. Alternatively, property may also be leased out to beekeepers with minimal to no remediation necessary, depending on the type and magnitude of contamination present.

Events/Community Space: Brownfields have also successfully been used as a temporary event or recreational space for communities. Green technology demonstrations, farmer's markets, skate parks, summer movie series, and food truck rallies are all potential events that could be hosted on appropriate brownfields. In Oklahoma City, developers turned a brownfield into soccer fields which were used by the Central Oklahoma Adult Soccer League while the construction of a mixed-use building was waiting to begin. In this case, the Oklahoma Petroleum Storage Tank Division needed to issue a Ready for Reuse determination which declared that environmental conditions on the property were protective of human health and the environment.

Parking: Availability of parking is a major issue for urban areas. Converting vacant lots into parking lots is an easy conversion that may ease traffic congestion and reduce auto emissions in downtown areas.

Other uses: Many brownfields are aptly suited for advertising. They are located near highways or other high traffic areas, which are ideal for ads and billboards. Another suitable use of brownfields is for public service training. Vacant buildings on brownfields are ideal for training police, firefighters, military, and emergency responders for real-life situations. These vacant buildings are also sought after by many photographers and filmmakers. Leasing is also a possibility for many of these sites.

There are many benefits associated with brownfield redevelopment, even if the reuse is temporary. Cash flow from interim uses can make once impractical remediation and redevelopment economically viable for the brownfield property owner. Additionally, during periods of depressed land value, interim use of abandoned land provides for productive land use until a more favorable real estate market returns for the brownfield owner. Some cities have also offered tax incentives to owners who put their land to use for community benefit.

The benefits of interim use are not limited to the brownfield property owner, however. A return to productive use helps revitalize entire communities by reducing blight. While interim use doesn’t necessarily involve active remediation, environmental benefits also exist. Brownfield reuse encourages urban infill, helping combat the negative effects of urban sprawl and leading to the preservation of natural areas and valuable farmland. Due to its positive impact on the environment, economy and community, many interim uses like greenspace are truly sustainable.

The sheer number of idle brownfields is a problem of itself. Remediating and redeveloping all of these brownfields is out of reach. However, interim use may be the missing piece to help redevelop and mitigate the negative effects of idle brownfields while a permanent solution is established.


Interested in redeveloping your brownfield site? Reach out to Trek EC to see how we can assist with assessment, remediation, and community outreach. Send us a message to get started.

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