Returns from Redeveloping Brownfields: Preliminary Estimates

Article excerpt

Redeveloping brownfields is achieving more recognition as a strategy in local community development projects, but relatively little is documented about the financial benefits obtained from public investments in these projects. This article examines 51 brownfield redevelopment projects in Illinois' cities and estimates the .financial returns to city and state investment. Dividing the projects into categories of industrial/commercial and recreational uses, the authors present innovative practices and factors that affect successful outcomes based on case studies with local officials and community developers. The results of the analyses suggest that cities often recover many times more than their initial investment and, at the same time, address other local issues.

Key-words: brownfield redevelopment, innovative community development practices, returns to public investment, local revitalization, brownfields, greenfield

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Brownfield property remediation has gained more attention in local economic development circles with the national economic recovery and increased pressures on space and development locations in large cities. Balanced growth proponents argue for redevelopment of downtown locations and infill as a preferred alternative to greenfield property development. Renewing brownfields can provide environmental benefits by preserving open space, using existing infrastructure, and revitalizing distressed urban centers (NGA, 2000).

Developing greenfield properties on the outskirts of communities often requires providing extended infrastructure and public services in relatively sparsely populated areas. Some investigators or stakeholders claim that these costs are potentially higher compared to using services already provided within urban boundaries although this point is debated (Burchell, Lowenstein, Dolphin, Galley, Downs, Seskin, & Still, 2002; Cox & Utt, 2004).

Although conceptually, redeveloping brownfield sites presents many advantages, especially in those areas with access to infrastructure needed for development, the time and costs associated with acquisition, remediation, and redevelopment of contaminated properties can present disadvantages and hinder development. In fact, fear of liability for cleanup is a major impediment for private investors especially when cost-effective greenfield sites are readily available on the edge of a city (Walzer & Hamm, 2005).

In some cases, city governments took an active role in the redevelopment process by helping private investors obtain a "No Further Action/Remediation Letter" (1) from a state Environmental Protection Agency to reduce cleanup costs, facilitate the funding process, and enhance access to private funding sources. These measures remove some uncertainties about costs associated with preparing a property for alternative uses and thereby help private investors determine potential profitability of a site.

Although brownfields are common in many, if not most, cities, and numerous brownfield projects exist, relatively little research compares spending by public agencies and businesses on brownfield redevelopment "returns to investment" (Gilliland, 1999). Lack of research is compounded by the uniqueness of the properties, the lengthy time demanded by development, and difficulties associated with collecting micro-data on specific properties.

In this article, the authors attempt to fill a void in the literature by describing the brownfield projects involved in an Illinois remediation program, comparing city and business spending. Without taking into account other social or environmental benefits of developing brownfields that may be substantial, the authors describe approaches by city governments and businesses contributing to the success of redevelopment efforts. No a priori hypotheses were involved and tested using the 'data; rather, the article simply describes the outcomes and processes used to complete the projects. …