December 30, 1996 - From the December, 1996 issue

Calif’s Center for Land Recycling: ‘Brownfields’ & Realistic Idealism!

While the debate over the impact of urban sprawl continues, there is little disagreement on both sides that the withdrawal of public and private resources from the urban industrial cores of cities like Los Angeles has created an entirely new set of urban problems. Reclaiming brownfields—obsolete, often contaminated industrial property—continues to be a critical component in any successful economic revitalization strategy for a city’s urban industrial core. 

TPR is pleased to present an interview with George Brewster, the new Executive Director of the California Center for Land Recycling, an innovative project created by a partnership between the Trust for Public Land and the James Irvine Foundation.


George Brewster: “[CCLR] was created in order to find the answers, and help spread those answers among all the communities that would benefit from them.”

Please give our readers a sense of why the California Center for Land Recycling was created—its background and purpose. 

The current patterns of land use and development in California are causing problems that are social, economic and environmental in nature. These problems can be characterized as a short-term planning horizon, the absence of integrated large-scale planning, factionalized decision-making, and entrenched political and business interests that tend to support the status quo. 

This has created a pattern that is often called sprawl, but can be viewed as a sort of throw-away mentality. It's like American consumerism and the use of cars—using a resource until it's worn out, and then not reusing or recycling the resource, but just throwing it away. Put the car in a landfill and buy another one.

We are following the same pattern in our land use. We are abandoning the inner city, and older suburbs, and building new communities on the urban fringes. This continuing pattern is consuming greenfield space and causing the inner cities and older suburbs to deteriorate. This process causes in its stead tremendous social, economic and environmental problems. 

When the Trust for Public Land and James Irvine Foundation announced your selection as Executive Director, the lead paragraph said, "this is the first public interest non-profit organization designed to identify, encourage, and facilitate the redevelopment of California brownfields in ways that arc community-supportive, economically viable, and environmentally responsive." This sounds a lot like sustainable development language. Could you elaborate on this mission statement? 

I think you have to view the criteria as reflecting the interest of the James Irvine Foundation in their sustainable communities program. The Irvine Foundation has taken the approach that brownfields redevelopment to date has either been driven by the private sector that renovates old shopping centers by removing underground storage tanks and asbestos, or by non-profits that are solely concerned with the community, without necessarily an eye toward economic feasibility.

The James Irvine Foundation's innovation is to combine the socially responsible, environmentally responsible, and economically feasible aspects to create sustainable communities. This is, in fact, the definition of sustainable development—to incorporate those issues in a way which achieves multiple benefits. 

How do mere mortals accomplish such a mission?

The real challenge is how to do this. While we don’t purport to have magic answers, the mission of CCLR is to create an integrated program of policies and practices that help to remove the obstacles, and create incentives for sustainable community development in existing urbanized areas. Obstacles include land planning practices, regulatory hurdles, zoning and building codes, and financing.

From the developer's perspective, I see tremendous inequality between the economic rationale of creating new communities at the urban fringe, and the prospect of developing urban infill locations, especially contaminated ones—or brownfields. 

CCLR's underlying and central mission is to help level the playing field, so that a rational developer (for profit or non-profit) will decide to redevelop existing urbanized areas, rather than developing the rural agricultural land at the fringe of the city. 

How do you remove those barriers? How do you create incentives for brownfield development? And parenthetically, how do you coordinate that effort with other programs which other organizations are engaged in to create larger hurdles for greenfield development? 

What is the nature/size of the brownfield problem in California and in the urban areas like Metropolitan L.A.?

There is no accurate count of brownfields, partly because there is no clear definition of brownfields. EPA's definition of brownfields says that they are contaminated sites, and they include land and buildings. EPA tends to focus on sites that were formerly industrial uses. 

Our definition is broader—we look at brownfields as any land that is not a greenfield site. In other words, any land within the existing urban area, which is served by utilities, transportation infrastructure, and public services. The sites that are most problematic are the sites closer to the urban core, that are causing blight to the surrounding communities. Bydefinition, most will have contaminated sites.

Getting an accurate count of that inventory would involve taking all the EPA sites, all the Cal EPA sites, several different categories of other contaminated and adjoining sites, and then adding to that list all the sites that aren't necessarily contaminated but that are vacant, abandoned, or underutilized, but still served by infrastructure. 

I wouldn't even speculate on that number. 

Why not? 

I think it would be shocking. EPA's estimate alone is that there are 500,000 contaminated sites in the United States. If you add to that the underutilized and abandoned sites the number in California, that number will surprise everybody. Hopefully, eventually, we will have a better feel for it.

In TPR's Roundtable conversation about brownfields in June the issue was raised of liability to the broad range of parties, including present owners, of these projects. Elaborate on the liability problems endemic to brownfields. 

The problem is like contamination—some of the problem is a real problem and some of it is a perceived problem. The biggest hurdle from the liability end is that the developer, investors and owners of property, are afraid of gelling involved in the "tar baby" of a Superfund-like site. 

The overlapping conflict and lack of clarity and certainty, between state and federal regulations, has caused so much uncertainty that even in the legal community, practicing land use attorneys ask for protections, guarantees and other assurances that are deal-killers. 

Guarantees are not feasible, and in many cases guarantees are not needed. There is confusion about what the liability situation is, which leads to a perception that there is a greater risk than there really is.

The reform of the liability situation is a crucial element, but the current legal liability situation for owners, buyers, and lenders is improving. The issue just hasn't been clarified to the point that a developer can say: "I understand the issues involved; I understand the risks involved; my attorney feels comfortable with it; it's not an issue." 

How will CCLR be different from ULI’s committees that you've been involved in, in terms of publicly raising an issue and bringing expertise to it? 

In some ways they are similar in terms of bringing diverse resources to bear on an issue and coming up with innovative solutions. ULI is a very different type of institution from CCLR. ULI is a think-tank, and has an educational function. CCLR will have an educational function too, but that will be only part of a three-pronged strategy.

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The first is primarily policy formulation aimed at encouraging brownfields development and removing the obstacles. A second part is demonstration sites, which test the policies that we are proposing and give us some feedback on additional directions to go for policy reform. 

The third part of the plan, is to gather information and share it with other organizations and developers involved in brownfields redevelopment. This would be informed by the pilot program and the policy program. 

In essence, what are the obstacles facing CCLR; to brownfields development? 

To the extent that there are problems to be addressed, then solving those are the problems facing CCLR. 

Some of the obstacles that are currently perceived include local government planning, zoning, and building codes that discourage new models for planning design, and that make entitlements for mixed use and infill projects very difficult. 

There are state government policies that have so far failed to sufficiently clarify and create a road map for developers and their attorneys in the regulatory and remediation process. 

Redevelopment agencies have tremendous potential for brownfield redevelopment. Yet in many communities redevelopment has been discouraged because of private property rights issues. Some fears may be unjustified, but the lack of familiarity with the opportunities and benefits that redevelopment agencies offer has tended to discourage their use. 

Financing is another major hurdle. Excessive caution on the part of lenders, especially due to inflexible underwriting, has discouraged long-term financing for in-fill and brownfields redevelopment. Unless those approaches change, and until there are equity pools aimed at brownfield redevelopment, the financing piece will continue to be an obstacle. 

In the five weeks you've been working on this, have you found that there is a sufficient level of interest around the State among stakeholders to build a consensus? 

Yes, there is a tremendous amount of interest. If CCLR is to be successful, we'll have to come up with some practical solutions that are implementable. Not just pie-in-the-sky ideas, but solutions that can actually be accomplished. 

Although some people ask, "what are the solutions?" We don't yet have answers. We were created in order to find the answers, and help spread those answers among all the communities that would benefit from them. 

Part of the means for doing that is to bring together coalitions and strategic alliances between the for-profit and non-profit and governmental communities in order to sit down and address together, creatively, the commonly identified problems, and find solutions that satisfy all those stakeholders. 

That is indicative of similar processes that are underway with the Endangered Species Act, for example. The ULI recently had a symposium on the Endangered Species Act that brought together both sides of the political spectrum and also some other interested parties. 

Another important part of solving the puzzle is direct experience and case studies, which will document the problems and some approaches to their solution. 

ULI has already published your first book, The Ecology of Development: Integrating the Built and Natural Environments. Please give us a thumbnail sketch of what that working paper includes as way of giving us an insight in to your concerns and focus. 

The book is not directly on the topic of brownfields, but it is an aspect of it. The Ecology of Development is an attempt to make the argument that current patterns of development have long-term negative effects socially and environmentally, and to argue that there are alternatives. Those alternatives are loosely based on the biological paradigm, the organic paradigm, versus the mechanical industrial age paradigm.

By looking at some of the leading thinking, the mainstream developer who has to deal with very ordinary issues every day, can see that there are some practical alternatives to current practice. These solutions arc applicable to what the developer, and the entire development community, from planners and architects through lenders, are doing. 

If they start to see the development process in a different way, start to think in terms of a longer term view, and are concerned about the overall benefits and disadvantages of the environment that they’re currently creating, then ideas will start surfacing for new approaches to development.

Let’s take one simple example: permeable surfaces to replace asphalt paving. Run-off from parking lots is a huge design problem for engineers and a cost issue for developers. The simple alternative of using permeable paving allows the water to percolate through the paving, recharge the groundwater, and also saves money in storm sewer engineering and construction costs. It's a simple example, but very effective.

The working paper is an effort to tease and goad the mainstream development community to get up to speed with what is happening with the rest of the world, so that they begin to realize they've been asleep at the switch for a while. The end result will be good for the development business, as well as the environment. 

In closing, are there sufficient incentives and disincentives in place in the development process to encourage developers to behave as you are suggesting—whether it applies to brownfields or ecologically sound development? 

Our task for the coming century and is to create those incentives and disincentives. Zoning is just a regulatory way of saying we are going to make it economically unattractive for you to build shoddy buildings. If we can recognize new approaches and models are needed, then it’s simply a matter of innovation to come up with what the incentives and disincentives are that will engage entrepreneurial efforts in that direction. 

Coming from the private development sector, I'm a strong believer that the private sector can lead the way to innovation, as long as it is shown a goal that is desirable and makes sense, is given incentives to achieve it, and is then allowed to turn the entrepreneurial juices loose to achieve that goal. 

You don't develop innovations by regulating development to death. You have to have a combination of regulations that steer activity away from undesirable activities, and incentivize the most desirable issues.

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