By Markus B. Niebanck
With no sign of an economic recovery anywhere on the horizon, the new-development and redevelopment real estate market promises to be flat for a long time. And when life is breathed back in, renewed vitality will occur first in the most obvious places: Locations where economic success is perceived as virtually guaranteed.
For property with known or suspected environmental contamination, particularly if this land is situated in lower income communities and neighborhoods not in or adjacent to areas with conventionally attractive economic attributes, the renaissance will not occur until the recovery is well under way.
While inner city urban communities are among those hardest hit by this recession, the future prospects for investment and development are not as bleak as in years past. A continued rise in the cost of energy will motivate a consequent increase in the utility of city-center dwelling, working and recreation, which in turn will bring redevelopment dollars and jobs to areas in greatest need. This said, immediate urban community struggles with crime, employment, and health aren’t lessened by the prospect of a transit-oriented development project that might break ground in 2020. But while the struggles aren’t diminished, its prospect may motivate interim community strategies that would not otherwise exist.
Urban agriculture, most commonly in the form of community gardens, has been a feature of inner city neighborhoods for as long as there have been inner cities. Increasingly evident, however, is the role gardens and small-scale farming can play in bridging the divide between today and tomorrow.
Urban agriculture turns abandoned underutilized land into neighborhood assets. Among their other beneficial attributes, agriculture projects:
--Produce healthy food the entire community can enjoy
--Engage youth, both in terms of time off the streets and learning opportunities
--Build communities, and
--Aesthetically enhance communities burdened by fenced and abandoned industrial land
In the vernacular of location, location, location geography matters—but so does the vitality of the community within which the land resides. All other things being equal, communities with established agricultural programs may have a competitive advantage in terms of redevelopment potential when compared to those without.
These advantages recognized, agricultural projects aren’t viable in all circumstances. Affecting factors include:
--Desire and capability. A community must both want and be able to convert underutilized land to an agricultural purpose;
--Transitional land use and expectations. In some instances, the agricultural purpose is temporary, and will be constructed on land that is ultimately destined to be put to an alternative purpose. Special care must be taken to ensure that an interim land-use project is comprehensively planned and communicated to all stakeholders so as to avoid unpleasant surprises at the end of the project’s term;
Financial considerations. While a successful project adds immeasurable value to its community, it doesn’t do so in immediate tangible dollars. Project proponents must work with reliably sharp pencils to ensure the undertaking is financially sustainable; and
--Compatibility. In terms of community perception, financial viability, health and safety the environmental condition of the land must be compatible with the contemplated undertaking (or be capable of being made compatible).
Greening Brownfields: Pragmatic Protective Strategies
Inner city vacant land is often vacant for a reason. Particularly with parcels previously occupied by an industrial use, the real or perceived presence of environmental contamination can stop a public-benefit project in its tracks. Now more than ever before, the absence of a revenue-generating offset to the cost of environmental cleanup makes projects such as these difficult, if not impossible. In days of richer economies, states, cities and local agencies could provide the make-up money in offsets or acquisition funding. Those days however, at least for the time being, are over.
Some projects remain viable, either from a simple economic standpoint or owing to sheer force of will. But given the uncertainty of environmental contamination, the viability of many cannot be accurately ascertained until the condition of the land and the associated developmental constraints are understood.
The questions around contamination impeding the transaction or redevelopment of brownfield properties can be basically reduced to three categorical inquiries: what is it, where is it, and what should I do about? The first two are addressed during environmental due diligence and are sufficiently well understood to not warrant further examination. The third—what should I do about it—pertains to urban agriculture and yields a wide variety of answers.
This question actually must be asked in two separate contexts, the first in the realm of the pre-development land transaction and the second in regard to the use of the land itself. In a transactional sense, the question turns on issues of practicability, value and liability, and differs slightly when considering leasing versus acquiring.
If leasing, areas that must be considered are:
--Basic compatibility. First and foremost, the prospective farmer must examine the severity of the contamination itself. In some circumstances, the contaminant type will have so substantial a stigma that either in terms of exposure and health or public relations is sufficiently problematic to make going further problematic (radioactive waste; especially toxic chemicals). In communities where there are more than one Brownfield available for productive interim use, it’s often pragmatic to consider those more benign.
--Baseline conditions - establishing the condition of the land prior to its re-use so as to protect against a claim of contribution being brought by the lessor at termination. This is particularly important for situations where the “what is it” is comprised of or could resemble the substances to be used in the agricultural undertaking.
--Exacerbation – an evaluation of the condition must be made with respect to the planned undertaking such that it can be assured that the farming will not cause a worsening. For example, irrigation can wash certain contaminants from soil to groundwater or accelerate the migration of existing water-borne contamination.
If buying the property, the “what should” question must direct an evaluation of condition-compatibility and mitigation requirements, both in terms of the near-term contemplated agricultural use and future use scenarios (the future-use scenario is considered for the purposes of accounting for costs associated with land disposition).
For sites requiring immediate or future cleanup, the value of the remedial action should be calculated and deducted from the acquisition price (assuming a sale price based on a clean, highest and best use appraised value).
The deliberative “what should” process must facilitate the understanding of the range of available protective alternatives. The farming proponent should consider retaining (for fee or pro bono) the services of an advisor with demonstrated expertise in the field of urban redevelopment for an agricultural use.
Whether leasing or buying, communication is essential. In this context, a plan must be made for outreach and neighborhood communication that describes site history, contamination, and bullet-proof strategies for ensuring user/neighborhood safety and wellness. This is particularly important in scenarios where the offending environmental substance won’t be removed prior to reuse.
Obtaining legal advice—deal terms and project details—is also the order of the day.
What are the local cleanup goals?
Under no circumstances should a project proponent take any action that would put the health of urban farmers or the consumers of their produce at risk. This said, the path most conventionally taken to satisfy this end is the reliance on “residential” cleanup goals. But is the residential standard, one that evaluates risk with a model that assumes regular ingestion of dirt, groundwater or the inhalation of indoor air for 30 years, really reasonably conservative? Or is it overkill—and project-killing?
Take a site that may require corrective action to attain a condition suitable for residential redevelopment, but that requires none in its current state (under, for instance, a commercial or industrial exposure scenario). Practice has often been to hold an urban agriculture project to a residential cleanup standard. To require a prospective farmer or current landowner who desires to lease to a farmer the incurring of expense associated with a cleanup standard that has no offsetting project revenue (as does actual residential redevelopment) is to ensure that a project won’t even get off the ground.
Protective alternatives are available, but their implementation requires a paradigm shift in the regulatory and service provider community. This shift understands the nature of the contemplated use (urban farming, not residential development), the existence and practicability of available management alternatives, and the cost to the community flowing from the reliance on overly conservative (though convenient) risk models—that cost being that beneficial projects are not carried through because of the unimaginative reliance on unreasonably conservative cleanup criteria.
At an Oakland, Calif., urban garden redevelopment, the park was safely constructed with a core of soil that would have traditionally been transported to a landfill—and at great expense.
Protective alternatives were considered and implemented, and included:
--Excavation of shallow soil from property line to property line and the transportation of excavated material to an off-property facility (landfill) for disposal. This is the alternative often recommended by service providers or regulatory agencies that rely on the common residential-standard cookbook approach to site preparation. This approach is often prohibitively expensive.
--Modification of “input parameters” for risk models, such that realistic means and durations of exposure are established. Often the simple rationalizing of the evaluative method brings substantial and demonstrably acceptable change to a contaminant’s risk profile.
--Grading of shallowest soil and construction of an on-property feature for containment. The soil stored in the features would be disposed of at a later date when the property is redeveloped for its next use. The graded area is filled with crushed rock or decomposed granite to prevent contact by users with underlying material (a raised-bed planting scenario).
--Amendment of shallow soil for stabilization of contaminants. Viable for only certain contaminants, the appropriateness of this approach is sometimes more difficult to effectively communicate to neighbors and site users, as the contaminant is not actually removed from the property (or secured in a site feature).
--Planting of precursor contaminant-binding crops for future in-ground growing scenarios. The research on optimal plant species for contaminant stabilization/removal is in early stages. For properties where an interim use is of a relatively short period of time, the number of crop cycles required for full protection may make this mitigation alternative infeasible.
--In-ground crop selection as a function of contaminant type. Certain crops appear suited for growing in soil containing specific contaminants. Uptake and concentration characteristics (no uptake, storage in leaves instead of fruit, etc.) in certain species suggest that compatibility between plants and contaminants at times exists, though this research is in early stages. For reasons described, public relations may make this approach additionally infeasible.
--Raised bed instead of in-ground planting. The containerization of a growing environment in features (raised beds, boxes, metal troughs, etc.) that reliably keep plants and their root systems in contact with only soil of reliable quality can avoid the questions and associated protective expense associated with native-ground planting. Such an approach isn’t typically incompatible with the purpose of the farming endeavor; the aspect primarily affected is the volume of produce grown. Aspects of community, teaching, and purposeful reuse of blighted property are all retained.
While historically practiced, urban agriculture has only recently been recognized as a strategic tool for the revitalization of communities burdened by an economic malaise. The nature of the undertaking, however, requires vision, creativity and skill. Customary standards of brownfield practice must be viewed through a new lens to ensure the successful deployment of this interim use in communities most in need.
Markus B. Niebanck, PG is an environmental consultant and Brownfield practitioner working out of Oakland, California. The founder of Amicus – Strategic Environmental Consulting, Mr. Niebanck also serves as a volunteer and environmental advisor for City Slicker Farms, a West Oakland-based urban agriculture non-profit. For more information on their respective practice areas, visit www.amicusenv.com or www.cityslickerfarms.org.
Photo credit: Pictures supplied by City Slicker Farms