Brownfields redevelopment requires patience, hard work

I spent one Monday last month at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfields conference at the impressive new Convention and Exhibition Center on Summer Street in Boston.

What exactly is a brownfields site? It is a real property, the reuse of which might be encumbered by real or perceived environmental contaminants. One doesn’t have to look too hard to find such sites.

For the commercial real estate world several things came to the fore at the conference:

• As of Nov. 1, there is a new ASTM standard for Level I and Level II site assessments. The new rule sets federal standards for the conduct of “all appropriate inquires” (AAI). The new standard is incorporated in the new ASTM EI527-05. This sets out the due diligence requirements to qualify for the so called landowner defenses under CERCLA.

• To have a successful brownfields initiative/project there needs to be a competent coordinator “go-to” point person. The process is complex, time consuming and involves multiple agencies, grants, regulations, etc.

• Many developers agree one of the most important things that a community can do to encourage development of brownfields sites, whether privately or locally owned, is to establish a single point of contact in the locality to deal with development issues.

• Every acre of successful redevelopment of brownfields saves 4.3 acre of comparable green fields. Encouraging and focusing development within our urban growth boundaries (those areas with existing infrastructure such as water, sewer, roads, electrical power, etc.) has excellent smart growth and anti-sprawl ramification.

• Storm Cunningham wrote a book, “The Restoration Economy,” which focuses on all the economic advantages of restoring the existing built environment. Every community needs to be thinking proactively about restoration development, some of which may be brownfields initiatives. One example is Brockton, Mass., that converted a former coal gasification site into a solar array field, turning a brownfield into a “brightfield,” providing clean renewable energy.

Another key conclusion from every session at the conference is that remediation of a brownfields site takes time (three to six years). All parties, most especially the host municipality, need to acknowledge the challenges involved with such protracted time lines.

There are many collaborative efforts among federal and state agencies, and it often takes multiple grants and low-interest loans to get these properties redeveloped and back on the tax rolls.

There are new tax abatement and tax deferral of real estate taxes incentives to help facilitate Brownfields redevelopment. In New Hampshire, the host community must adopt such a program and identify the areas or zones where it will apply.

There is an old adage in the real estate world: If it was easy anybody could do it! A key starting point is inventorying brownfields sites. Once they are identified, characterized and quantified then sources of programs and funds can be targeted which can jump start the redevelopment by one to three years.

One final need is for communities to examine their zoning and align the zoning to allow, promote and incentivize mixed-use, green and moderate-to-high-density development that will absorb all of the additional costs of redevelopment.

One key concern is parking. If I propose to build a 20,000-square-foot infill redevelopment building with 5,000 square feet of retail on the first floor, 5,000 square feet of office on the second and 10 apartments on the top two floors, that is not going to happen if I have to provide 30 or more parking spaces. Our suburban regulations for parking will not promote urban downtown and neighborhood village redevelopment.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE), a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS) and a member of the board of The Initiative for a 2020 Vision for Concord. He can be reached at

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