Turning Brownfields Green

For all the difficulty of redeveloping contaminated sites, Greater New Haven has made incremental progress by returning some to productive uses through public-private partnerships.

Polluted sites, known as brownfields, have challenged former industrial hubs for decades. The cleanup costs and back taxes scare off developers and most municipalities can't afford to remediate the sites on their own.

Innovative public-private partnerships in Greater New Haven, however, are bringing new approaches to solving this dilemma. And the result is increased tax revenues, rising property values, improved environmental health, and a restored sense of hope.

The Numbers

  • Connecticut has tens of thousands of polluted sites, according to the Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection, but the exact number is unknown.
  • The DEEP brownfields inventory, which only includes properties with the highest redevelopment potential, lists 284 sites, nearly a third of which are in Greater New Haven.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are 450,000 brownfields nationwide.
  • On average, $16.11 was leveraged for each EPA Brownfields dollar and 8.5 jobs leveraged per $100,0001.
  • Homes within 1.24 miles of a cleaned up brownfield saw property values increase by 5 - 15.2%2.

Public-private Investments

New Haven's Science Park, built on the formerly polluted Winchester Repeating Arms site, is a success story thirty years in the making.

Started in 1982 as a collaboration between Yale and New Haven, the 80-acre site has transformed into a hub of technology startups, biotech companies, and research labs. The development recently entered a new phase with a residential and retail community made possible through a public-private partnership.

A $60 million project to redevelop one of brick buildings into residential lofts with the assistance of $5.5 million from the state Department of Economic and Community Development for environmental remediation and construction and up to $18.5 million in tax credits through the Urban and Industrial Sites Reinvestment Tax Credit Program.

Collaborative redevelopment efforts in the Valley have been lead by the Valley Council of Governments, which runs a brownfields service center where municipalities and developers can access funding from the US EPA and the CT Department of Economic and Community Development.

Shelton's work to redevelop the contaminated factory sites along its riverfront has been going on since 1975, when a massive fire destroyed the Sponge Rubber mattress factory. After two decades of trying to find a developer to turn the site into new business park, the city bought it following a 1997 referendum and initiated the cleanup.

While the business park never materialized, the cleanup gave birth to a new vision – a riverfront park and farmer's market. The project brought people back downtown and helped restore the market for the historic factory buildings nearby. More brownfields work continued, and private investment in the past decade has converted blighted brick buildings and an asphalt plant into attractive condominiums and office space.

"Rather than dig up greenfields, we are taking properties that have laid fallow for years and putting them back to work," says Jimmy Ryan, former director of the Shelton Economic Development Corporation. "The whole community made a commitment."

Challenges to Progress

Despite billions of dollars Environmental Protection Agency grants, the number of remediated sites is only in the thousands, according to Hugh Bailey, author of the blog "From Brown to Green." A big hurdle to accelerating the process of cleaning up the vast inventory of contaminated sites, Bailey says, is that priorities are set based on development potential, rather than environmental concerns. The scarcity of brownfields that can attract private interest inherently limits the amount of cleanup projects that get completed.

"Unless there is an immediate health risk, there is no real incentive. You end up with an eyesore that is just going to sit there," Bailey says.

The Brownfields Landbank

Most cities and towns are unable to handle the cost and complexity of managing brownfields acquisition and redevelopment. Federal grant money flows to only the most thoroughly planned projects. Winning applications require sophisticated planning departments that most small municipalities do not have.

The Connecticut Brownfields Landbank (CTBLB) was established to help address this gap. CTBLB is working with Naugatuck Valley cities and towns to assemble, clean, and resell some of the region's most longstanding and challenging brownfields.

"We need that tax base," says Executive Director Arthur Bogen, who is also an environmental planner with the Valley Council of Governments brownfields center. "We need that land reused. We can't just have wealthy areas and horrible areas. The fabric of society can't handle that. This is work that is crying out to be done."

Funded in part by a grant from The Valley Community Foundation, CTBLB aggregates resources on behalf of municipalities that lack the capacity to manage complicated land deals. It assembles properties into a marketable whole, manages their cleanup, clears the titles, and resells the land for productive use. The projects involve extensive collaborations among state and local officials, community stakeholders, and developers.

In addition to applying for EPA funding, the CTBLB hopes to tap into money from other federal sources such as HUD, and will raise capital from social investors who are willing to take a long term risk.

"We are trying to create leverage for property that doesn't' have leverage," says Bogen.

Little used in New England, land banking is an evolving field that has existed in the Midwest for several decades. Land banks have primarily been used acquire, rehabilitate, and sell houses caught in the downward spiral of foreclosure and auction sales to speculators. The ultimate goal of modern land banks is to influence the market so that private capital returns to areas that were abandoned.

In Flint, Michigan, the Genesee County Land Bank has acquired 10,000 parcels, redeveloped historic buildings, demolished hundreds of abandoned houses, cleaned thousands of empty lots, and brought more than $60 million in private investment, according to Dan Kildee, President of the Center for Community Progress and previously the treasurer of Genessee County.

Landbanks are not without their challenges, however. "Cleveland's land bank has struggled to capitalize projects," according to a report by the Federal Reserve of Boston, Modern Land Banking: Can It Work in Southern New England? In Genesee County, the land bank has had trouble finding qualified buyers for rehabbed homes," the report stated.

Bogen, well aware of the challenges, is undeterred as he looks to turn brownfields into thriving economic engines for communities.

"There is no magic wand," Bogen says. "The legacy is something that we inherited. We can't excavate our cities and bring them to a landfill."

What the Community Foundation is Doing

Investments in regional planning by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and the Valley Community Foundation has helped leverage millions of state and federal dollars for environmental testing and cleanups.

The Naugatuck Valley Brownfields Project, managed by the Valley Regional Council of Governments, has received support from The Community Foundation and its affiliate, the Valley Community Foundation, through both unrestricted funds and from the Frank and Ross Gates Fund.

Since the 1980s, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven has supported Shelton Economic Development Corporation's long-range planning, which has focused extensively on brownfields redevelopment.

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, The Community Foundation provided funding for technical support to the Science Park Development Corporation.

The Community Foundation's affiliate, the Valley Community Foundation, awarded a three-year, $46,500 grant to help launch the CT Brownfield Land Bank.

Works Cited

  1. "Brownfields Program Accomplishments and Benefits." EPA. May 22, 2017. Accessed June 28, 2017. https://www.epa.gov/brownfields/brownfields-program-accomplishments-and-benefits.
  2. https://www.epa.gov/brownfields/brownfields-program-accomplishments-and-benefits

© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
Updated June 2017