No matter where you live in the United States, chances are you are near a brownfield. It could be a section of the city that once bustled with industrial and commercial activity, but now resembles a backdrop for the 1981 film Escape from New York. Or it could be a long-ignored site, such as a decommissioned landfill, that has grown uncomfortably close thanks to sprawl.

Today, architects are frequently called upon to use their planning skills to help create productive metropolises out of derelict wasteland. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the country has up to 425,000 brownfields, while the National Brownfield Association says some 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites exist. Along with state and federal governmental incentives, an increased interest in the regeneration of postindustrial cities has put a lot of that land at a premium. The fact that many brownfield sites occupy valuable property, often on the waterfront—as is the case with decommissioned navy yards in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—only spurs the drive for their redevelopment. Understanding brownfields, real estate market forces, and remediation strategies will help architects have a voice at a table typically filled with regulators and environmental engineers.

Site Appeal
Developers are attracted to brownfields because they can generally pick them up at a cheap price due to the presence—or perceived presence—of environmental contaminants; not all brownfields veritably harbor dangerous contaminants, but just bearing that potential qualifies them as such. “Brownfields are not environmental projects—they’re real estate projects with an environmental twist,” says Michael McLaughlin, a senior vice president in the Reston, Va., office of SCS Engineers, an environmental consulting firm.

Along with the land’s below-market price, governmental incentives such as tax increment financing (TIF) or the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) brownfield and land-revitalization grants often cover or reduce the cost of assessing and cleaning up the site. In 2002, the Bush Administration further incentivized brownfield redevelopment with the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act. The act contains three titles that deal with funding and liability for assessing and cleaning up contaminated properties, setting aside $200 million annually in federal funding. It also provides exemptions from owner or operator liability for persons whose properties are contaminated by toxins due to contiguous properties, or dumped by previous owners or unrelated parties.

“With the Brownfield Revitalization Act, the government basically said, ‘We’re going to make it easier for you in terms of liability to turn over your property,’ ” says Julie Bargmann, founder of D.I.R.T. Studio, a New York City–based design-research practice specializing in urban regeneration. “They’re like, ‘It’s time for you to … say you’re [your site’s] a brownfield, and here’s some money to help you with that.’ ”

Of course, the government doesn’t hand out these incentives freely. To qualify for assessment and cleanup grants, or for liability protection, property owners have to satisfy specific statutory requirements. Prior to development, owners must meet environmental due-diligence requirements by undertaking a regimented inquiry process into the previous uses and ownership of the property. If contaminants are found, owners have to take measures to manage them—for which they can apply for government grants or TIF—before redevelopment can begin.

Super Isn’t Always Great
Not all toxic wastelands are revitalized electively, or in the hope of turning a profit. In many cases, the EPA has had to step in and either effect a remediation or make those responsible for the contamination clean up their mess. Enter the realm of Superfund.

“Superfund sites are the biggest and baddest brownfields,” Bargmann says. The Superfund was established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 after the 1970s discovery of toxic waste dumps such as Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Times Beach, Mo.

Among Superfund’s successes is Reed Keppler Park, a former landfill in West Chicago that became a public park in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, the EPA discovered that the fill used to cap the site contained radioactive thorium wastes, placed the park on the National Priorities List (NPL)—a register of the most-pressing known or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants—and went looking for those responsible.

The fill had come from a nearby, defunct rare-earths plant last owned and operated by the (now also defunct) energy and chemical company Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp., which agreed to fund the cleanup. In 1997, Kerr-McGee began excavating more than 114,600 cubic yards of contaminated soil, which was transported to a disposal facility. Four years and $33 million later, the company completed the cleanup, but the project remained on the NPL until 2010, after the EPA was satisfied with the groundwater uranium levels.