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Can you explain the term “brownfield?”
LB: The term refers to land that is abandoned or underused, in part, because of concerns about contamination.
Federal regulations define brownfields as “abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial properties where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.”
That definition may make you think of abandoned industrial property, but that image is too narrow. Although some brownfields are old industrial sites, others are commercial buildings with little or no environmental contamination.
What are the challenges and opportunities presented by brownfield redevelopment?
LB: When brownfield properties sit idle, neighborhood property values decline, municipal infrastructure is underused, and new business seeks out “greenfields,” or undeveloped land, encouraging sprawl.
Brownfields redevelopment addresses environmental problems, increases employment, raises tax revenues and breathes new life into redeveloped areas. Brownfields programs offered by government entities such as municipalities, Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others provide assistance that creates opportunities for properties to develop beyond their old uses.
Developers have transformed brownfields into everything from golf courses and baseball fields to mixed developments with housing, offices, shopping and open space.
For nearly 20 years, Oklahoma City has been successful in transforming brownfields into treasured community spaces, such as the Bricktown canal and the Bricktown ballpark.
Why would developers be reluctant to redevelop brownfields?
LB: The major three impediments to redevelopment are lack of cleanup funds, need for environmental assessments and liability issues.
If the property is indeed environmentally impaired with asbestos insulation or an old underground storage tank, for example, developers become concerned that they will incur legal liability for cleanup.
What other liabilities are involved?
LB: Leaving abandoned or unused property to age and deteriorate can allow any contamination from the property to migrate off site or into the groundwater. Liability under existing environmental statutes means that these properties can be the subject of environmental enforcement actions by regulatory agencies.
Enforcement actions can include costly cleanups and monetary penalties.
Do brownfields programs help overcome these impediments?
LB: Yes. Brownfields programs help navigate the financial and technical issues to overcome these concerns. For example, if a property is environmentally impaired, developers can run into difficulty obtaining standard bank financing.
Everyone is concerned about environmental liability. Brownfields programs offer certain financial resources and technical guidance to assist developers and to negotiate state or federal regulatory programs.
Redevelopment grants are available to nonprofits. The DEQ Brownfields Program provides specific state liability relief and protects the property from federal Superfund (hazardous waste sites) actions.
What Oklahoma City developments have used such programs?
LB: Oklahoma City has decades of success in transforming brownfield properties. The Bricktown canal and the Dell Center are both nationally recognized success stories of redevelopments made possible through brownfields programs. In fact, Oklahoma City received a (EPA) Region 6 Phoenix Award for each of these projects. Oklahoma City also received Brownfield Renewal magazine’s first Renewal Award for Economic Impact for the redevelopment of Bricktown.
Aside from these well-known projects, what has brownfields redevelopment done for us lately?
LB: Recent developments include the American Indian Cultural Center, a unique architectural undertaking designed to display and honor the landscape, programs and culture of the American Indian in Oklahoma.
The WestTown Resources Center houses agencies that aid the indigent, such as Legal Aid, Neighborhood Services Organization and Healing Hands. The adjacent building houses the day shelter, which serves the community by providing meals, clean showers, secure storage lockers and basic information technology to people who are homeless.
The day shelter is operated by a team of service providers including faith-based organizations and is intended to promote healthy living by combining educational, employment and outreach/ engagement services.
The Bricktown fire station is Oklahoma City’s first project built for [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification. The design not only fits into its Bricktown setting, but it also echoes the design of firehouses of the past. The foyer museum features the city’s first motorized 1910 fire engine, along with a mural and historical information about the fire department.
It’s also important to recognize that successful brownfields projects can make traditional private investment in neighboring properties more attractive.
So, projects that may not be former brownfields themselves, like housing projects surrounding Bricktown, may never have happened or may have taken a very different form if not for such programs.
Oklahoma City has become the venue for a regional brownfields conference. What can you tell us about it?
LB: The theme is “Rethink ... Reinvest … Reinvent.” Oklahoma DEQ’s Land Protection Division and its brownfields program organize community leaders, governmental agencies, municipalities and others to plan and host a biennial event.
The conference convened May 22-23 at another of Oklahoma City’s brownfields success stories: the historic Skirvin Hilton Hotel.