FEATURE ARTICLE, MAY 2006
THE FUTURE OF BROWNFIELDS: A CASE STUDY
Georgetown Land Development gives an in-depth look at a redevelopment project in Redding, Connecticut.
Stephen M. Soler
An estimated 450,000 brownfield sites blight cities, towns and neighborhoods throughout the United States. Over the past 10 years, several forward-thinking developers have “cherry-picked” the best of these sites, cleaning them up and creating value where none existed previously. But what about the remaining sites — the ones most difficult to redevelop? They most likely will continue to languish, preventing economic renewal in their vicinity, unless developers begin to think creatively — establishing new protocols and financial models and dealing proactively with hidden and often unfamiliar risk factors. Will brownfield developers be prepared to navigate these challenges successfully?
Georgetown Land Development Company is redeveloping a 55-acre brownfield site located in Redding, Connecticut.
Yes — if they create transparent public/private partnerships and create development plans that integrate environmental remediation with economic development and transportation planning. In order to do this, developers need to stop viewing area residents and government agencies as obstacles and start viewing them as stakeholders and significant assets. Early input from these stakeholders facilitates moving through the regulatory process faster and helps prevent issues that can derail even the best projects late in the process.
Georgetown Land Development Company, LLC (GLDC) is the owner and developer of a 55-acre brownfield site in the Georgetown section of Redding, Connecticut, which provides an example of this model. The project, located on the site of the former Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill, has earned the town of Redding a national Smart Growth Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is one of only four developments in the country to earn a designation from the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Qualified Green Building and Sustainable Design project.
This brownfield is large and complex: the former Wire Mill has more than 35 buildings that were used in the manufacturing process; it is adjacent to a major Connecticut artery that runs between Danbury and Norwalk, Connecticut; it has the Danbury spur of Metro North commuter rail road running along side it and the Norwalk River running through it.
In 2001, the town of Redding enlisted the services of Connecticut architect and planner Patrick Pinnell to help them understand the possible uses for this site. He focused on redeveloping the Georgetown section into a village environment using traditional neighborhood development principles. In 2002, GLDC made a proposal to the town of Redding which followed Pinnell’s recommendations and GLDC acquired the deed to the property from the previous owner in October 2002.
GLDC spent the following year stabilizing the property, doing preliminary engineering work and completing the environmental investigation. In October 2003, GLDC held a week-long planning session — or Charrette — attended by more than 1,000 residents, which resulted in a conceptual plan with suggestions from many of those who participated.
The Charrette included the U.S. EPA, the National Park Service, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, local planning and zoning officials, historic preservationists, land use stakeholders, various departments from the Connecticut Department of Transportation and many others. By the end of the week, GLDC had a solid framework for the master plan and, as important, genuine excitement from most stakeholders.
The interactive nature of the process did not end there — it continued as GLDC worked closely with most of the Charette participants. In June 2004, a master plan was presented to the town of Redding. Lead architect Dave Beem of Roger Ferris and Partners in Westport, Connecticut, coordinated this effort with architectural, engineering and law firms from all over Connecticut. In September of 2004, they received unanimous approval with no appeal — a unique accomplishment for any development of this size.
With local approval in hand, GLDC met with state agencies and started the approval and revision process at the state level. Less than 4 years after taking ownership of the property, GLDC will be breaking ground.
Working closely with the U.S. EPA, state environmental protection agencies, state transportation authorities, local governments and local residents from day one should become standard practice. But this will only go so far.
The U.S. EPA has done a tremendous job setting the stage for redevelopment of these sites. However, the fact is that for successful reuse of these sites to move forward, developers will need capital, capital and capital: political capital, intellectual capital and financial capital.
Political capital must be fostered carefully because it is the easiest capital to lose. Building trust and providing information to the public through an open dialogue is vital to ensuring this important stakeholder remains steadfast.
The intellectual capital has been provided initially by the U.S. EPA. The EPA has worked hard to lay the groundwork by educating cities and states about the brownfield process and by providing various tools to economic development professionals.
The financial capital is the most difficult to obtain. Financial risks demand a return proportionate to the risk. In situations where the risk is real, or even perceived, a higher financial reward will be required.
State and federal programs are essential elements in making a complex brownfield development, like the Wire Mill, financially viable. This month, construction of an expanded waste water treatment facility will begin — an absolute necessity for a development of this size. It is being financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Loan program. Next month, GLDC will start demolition of non-essential and unstable structures thanks in part to a HUD Block Grant administered by the state of Connecticut and awarded by Governor Jodi M. Rell. Later this year, GLDC will use green bonds proceeds for demolition, remediation, infrastructure and commercial development. These green bonds are the result of a special designation from the U.S. Treasury, which designate the development as a Green Building and Sustainable Design project. GLDC earned this project designation early this year because of the project’s commitment to environmentally responsible practices, including the creation of alternative energy on-site and constructing LEED-certified buildings.
The best method for increasing the flow of capital is for federal policy to reflect the critical importance of revitalizing America’s cities and towns, now impaired by an industrial legacy. Providing federal tax credits is arguably the best, most straightforward method of creating an equity pool to achieve this goal. Following a transparent public/private partnership model and using an integrated approach to planning combined with federal tax credits will go a long way to generating economic value for developers and communities from these blighted landscapes.
Stephen Soler is the president of Georgetown Land Development Company.
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