Brownfields — abandoned or underused properties where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by either real or perceived environmental contamination — present a challenge for local governments, primarily because of the high costs to redevelop and/or recycle the land. However, according to a report from the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), the benefits can be worth the costs.

USCM's national report on the status of brownfield sites in 150 American cities, released in June, documents the impediments to, and quantifies some of the benefits from, brownfield redevelopment. The report found that 136 cities estimated that they collectively had more than 22,537 brownfield sites with an average size of 8.6 acres. More than 120 cities estimated that 3,035 sites have been "mothballed," meaning the current owner has no intention of redeveloping or selling because of environmental concerns. "Cities across the nation have learned to do more with less, but these difficult economic times have made new developments on brownfields even more challenging," says Long Beach, Calif., Mayor Bob Foster, chairman of USCM's Environmental Committee.

West Palm Beach, Fla., has helped fund redevelopment of several brownfields over the years, including Merry Place, a residential development that includes much-needed affordable housing. To assist the city's housing authority to qualify for tax credits to develop the site, the city allocated $100,000 for infrastructure improvement, Frankel says. Federal grants and tax incentives are available to local governments to redevelop brownfields, which can be an important tool for urban and city center redevelopment, Frankel says. "Through brownfield redevelopment, additional jobs and a growth in the tax base are two benefits cities can strive for," she says.

Reap what you sow

Other highlights of the USCM brownfield survey findings include:

  • More than 46 percent of the survey respondents stated that if brownfields were redeveloped, they could realize nearly $688 million to $1.66 billion annually in additional tax revenues.

  • 106 cities responded that more than 230,223 new jobs could be created on redeveloped brownfield sites.

Source: U.S. Conference of Mayors