Redeveloping Abandoned Gas Stations

Cleanups Benefit Local Economies

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Rayo Bhumgara is president of Massachusetts-based Sustainable Strategies 2050, which helps communities navigate the clean-up and redevelopment of brownfield sites.

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Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 9:45 am | Updated: 9:46 am, Mon Oct 27, 2014.

Brownfield /’broun,feld/ n: abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial properties where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination. The empty gas station on the corner. The shuttered restaurant with a cracked parking lot. The abandoned factory or foundry on the edge of town.

These examples of brownfields are ubiquitous in communities across the country – and they are an increasingly visible concern.

In fact, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores, of the nearly 200,000 gas stations that existed nationwide in 1991, more than 50,000 are now closed.

So how should communities address brownfields – sustainably and on a budget?

Cleanup and redevelopment of petroleum brownfield sites can encourage higher property values, create jobs and benefit the local economy by creating a safer, healthier urban space to house businesses and residences, according to the Brownfield Center at the Environmental Law Institute. But many businesses and industries prefer developing “greenfields,” or undeveloped land, to avoid the perceived complications of brownfields redevelopment. Extensive development of greenfields, particularly combined with underdevelopment of brownfields and other infill properties, can intensify urban sprawl and consume valuable farmland and habitat.

This is why it might make sense to redevelop brownfields first, before moving into greenfields for development.

Although there are expenses associated with developing a brownfield site, it does not have to be a budget buster. Groundwater contamination costs more to clean up than just the soil. Contaminated materials that need to be transported off-site for treatment also can be costly, according to the Brownfield Center. If a property is cleaned up to commercial use standards, rather than residential use standards, the cleanup will typically be less expensive.

There also are grants, low interest loans and tax incentives to help local governments investigate and clean up brownfields. Since 2003, when petroleum-contaminated sites first became eligible for brownfield grants, the EPA awarded more than $89.8 million for the assessment and cleanup of petroleum brownfield sites. For a site to be eligible, the EPA or the state must make the determination that a petroleum-contaminated site is “relatively low-risk” compared to other petroleum-contaminated sites in the state. It must have “no viable responsible party;" it must be assessed, investigated or cleaned up by a person not potentially liable for the contamination, and it must not be subject to a corrective action order under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Regardless of whether a property is a gas station or another type of business, it is critical to integrate the remediation with the redevelopment, said Rayo Bhumgara, president of Massachusetts-based Sustainable Strategies 2050, which helps communities navigate the clean-up and redevelopment of brownfield sites. The first question to ask about a brownfield site is whether it poses an imminent hazard to human health or the environment. Even if tanks have been removed and soil remediated, an abandoned gas station can still be a hub for criminal activity, and can cause property values and the local tax base to erode.

“These things affect the fabric of the city. The longer a property has been abandoned, the greater the ripple effect. Then it affects the whole neighborhood, not just one discreet location,” he said. “There are derivative effects of not taking action for a prolonged period of time. And if there is a cluster of abandoned sites, that creates a negative dynamic for the community at large.”

When city managers and other officials are dealing with a brownfield site, they should first determine whether the property owner or owners will clean the site or whether the owners have walked away from their cleanup responsibilities, Bhumgara said. If the contamination is such that there are imminent hazards, then regulatory agencies will become involved.

“Cities don’t like to take responsibility for clean-up, unless they take title to the property,” he said. “If there isn’t an imminent hazard, the regulatory agencies will determine the long-term strategy for cleanup. Where the owner is non-responsive, the city should step in and try to get the property redeveloped. The city has limited options if they don’t have control of the property. If they do have control, they can consider various redevelopment options and then align the remediation with the redevelopment.”

Normally, when a business wants to select a site for expansion, they evaluate potential sites based on several criteria that will work for their business. Bhumgara applies that method in reverse for brownfield sites.

“We start with locations that are looking for industries/end-users. The goal is to identify users that will be a good match for the location and the community,” he said. “Before developing a strategy to identify the most viable industries or end-users for a brownfield property, it is important to understand the characteristics of the property and community, including existing buildings that can be adapted and re-used, infrastructure, utilities, environmental liabilities, zoning and allowable uses, and ownership.”

The next step is to gain an understanding of a range of attributes that the community or region has to offer, Bhumgara said, including real estate/facilities, operating costs, workforce talent, business environment, logistics and access, taxation/incentives, vendors and partners, utilities and infrastructure. This then gives a basic definition of the ingredients that might be combined to develop the strategy to qualify and attract industries/end-users.

“Redevelopment has to drive the cleanup of brownfield sites, where an imminent threat does not exist, and it is important to understand what the market will support for each location and for the community,” he said, which is how his company works with cities to create an action plan that will identify the steps to redevelopment.

“At the end of the day, bringing in new businesses/end-users drives redevelopment,” Bhumgara said. “Brownfields just have an additional layer of complexity, which can be navigated through, but they also have opportunities because they are located in places along transportation corridors, with existing infrastructure/utilities and other positive attributes. These sites might have outdated facilities or infrastructure, but they can be adapted for contemporary uses.”

Bhumgara helps create action plans that prioritize sites, identify key industries/end-users, identify key infrastructure upgrades, opportunities for public private partnerships, develop community involvement plans and review permitting and regulatory issues. Some cities have capabilities in-house for this type of analysis, but more than 95 percent of cities don’t, he said.

“This type of analysis is highly specialized,” he said. “A consultant might be a good investment because they bring experience from other cities where they are working. They can propose and adapt solutions you many have not thought about and help you implement a plan that is results oriented.”

Cities should set up a task force made up of community organizations, city officials, business representatives and other committed stakeholders to implement recommendations, Bhumgara said.

“Develop a road map of what you can do quickly to connect the dots without spending a lot of money,” he said. “Prioritize sites/actions based on how long it may take to implement, the financial investment required and the regulatory/policy changes needed.”

Many brownfield sites of all types have been and currently are in the process of being cleaned up and developed. According to the United States General Accounting Office, there are as many as 425,000 throughout the U.S., mostly concentrated in urban areas. Most of these are “legacy” brownfields that go back 10, 20, 30 years or more since they were abandoned, Bhumgara said.

“Most were operating before EPA had the regulatory enforcement or oversight it does now. Some became Superfund sites because of imminent threats and an unacceptable level of risk to human health and the environment,” he said, adding that we are in a “different world” than in the 1970s, 1980s or1990s.

“The probability of an industry abandoning a facility and not closing it in an appropriate manner today is remote,” Bhumgara said. “But we still have a lot of legacy sites that we will be redeveloping over the next 10-20 years and beyond. Brownfields offer a terrific opportunity to re-build the industrial/manufacturing base in the U.S. by highlighting the positive attributes of these locations and re-adapting them for 21st century businesses.”

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