Archive for the ‘Brownfield Redevelopment’ Category

Dec 21st, 2012

Solar Power on Brownfields

I’ve heard of some projects that want to put solar power on brownfield site. Why would we want to do this, and is it even possible? Have any projects succeeded so far?


Like all brownfield development, using already-contaminated land for new solar projects lessens the pressure to build solar projects in open spaces, desert habitat, or on farmland. As many concerns have been raised over the potential environmental impacts of large-scale solar development in the desert, “brightfields” represent an opportunity to invest in renewable energy without many of the potential downsides.

Although the idea of brightfields has existed for some time, the market for renewable energy and the technology required to make them economically viable has only recently started to come together. One option that has gained a lot of popularity recently is siting solar projects on closed landfills. In many cases, local governments own these sites and have ongoing maintenance costs and no plans for redevelopment. Solar projects represent a source of clean electricity (and potentially profit!) when previously there were only maintenance costs. As discussed in the previous post, landfill caps can safely contain wastes, allowing new development to be placed on top of them. New technology is developing ways that solar panels can be safely placed on top of landfills, including flexible solar membranes which are unaffected by the settling that happens in a landfill over time as waste compacts.

As the idea of brightfields grows, the number of success stories across the country is expanding. The Environmental Protection Agency’s RE-Powering America Initiative ( provides a great source of information for those interested in learning more about past projects, technical resources, and potential opportunities. Some example projects include:

  • Exelon City Solar ( in Chicago, Illinois, is the largest urban solar plant in the US. Developed on a huge industrial site which had sat vacant for 30 years, the project beautifies the community, provides jobs and economic development, and generates clean energy.
  • Nellis Air Force Base ( in Nevada is recently opened a solar plant that will supply a quarter of the base’s energy. Located in part on an old landfill, the solar power plant is the largest on any US military base.
  • The Oliver Street Landfill ( in Easthampton, Massachusetts, installed 2.3 MW of generating capacity on the closed municipal landfill. This project provides enough energy to power 20% of the city’s municipal buildings. Massachusetts has a particularly strong program to encourage renewable energy on landfills; more information is available at the Department of Environmental Protection’s website (

Many more examples of successful projects can be found online and at EPA’s RE-Powering America site. Brightfields represent one of the many opportunities available to develop brownfields sites from contaminated blight to useful purposes that benefit the community, the economy, and the environment.

Posted December 21st, 2012 at 12:57 pm
Posted by Evan Reeves
Jul 24th, 2012

Landfill Capping Safety

I’ve heard that some cleanups of landfills and other toxic sites just put a cap over the contamination! Is this safe? Shouldn’t all the hazardous waste be removed instead?

In almost all cases, properly designed and monitored caps on landfills can allow the site to be reused safely. Since 1988, landfills in the US have been regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This legislation requires new landfills to be designed with protective liners under the layers of trash, to have careful plans for their operation, and to set aside funding to monitor and maintain the landfill for at least 30 years after its closure. Older landfills, which were not required to have these same protections, must install monitoring wells and protective underground layers after the fact.

To begin, it’s important to understand what exactly a landfill cap is. While different methods of construction exist, all landfill caps contain a solid layer that is placed over the top of a landfill to prevent water from getting into the landfill. This layer may be thick, water-resistant clay, a thin layer of impermeable plastic, or both. Keeping water out of the landfill is important because when water trickles through the waste, it can pick up hazardous chemicals. This water is called “leachate.” If leachate escapes from the landfill, it can contaminate groundwater and spread potentially harmful chemicals through the soil.

Of course, not even the best protective layers can keep out all water, and some water forms inside the landfill itself when trash decomposes. As a result, it’s important to have some way to remove the leachate that does get through. When a landfill is closed, a geologist specializing in landfill design will evaluate where the leachate will flow when leaving the landfill. Depending on how much leachate is expected to leave the landfill, different systems to capture it can be used. The most advanced actively pump leachate out of the ground for treatment, while passive systems add a layer of rock that directs the leachate out of the ground, allowing it to drain naturally. In older landfills which have no underground liner in place to prevent leachate from seeping out, slurry walls or other barriers may be buried along the sides of the landfill.

Caps have other features to manage potential hazards. When the waste in a landfill decomposes, it emits a mix of chemicals, primarily carbon dioxide and methane (natural gas). While neither is directly harmful to health, methane can be explosive in high concentrations, something anyone who owns a gas stove knows. Other chemicals which may be emitted in small concentrations by decomposing waste, such as VOCs or benzene, can directly harm people who come into contact with them. Although these emissions are usually quite small, monitoring their release is very important to protect the health of people who will use the cleaned site. To prevent this, a layer of rock that is easy for gases to travel through directs the methane and hazardous gases to collection stations and monitoring wells. Here, it is either vented off, or collected to be burned as fuel.

Despite the concerns regarding landfill gases and leachate, even old, unregulated landfills have been safely redeveloped. One example is Fresh Kills, NYC’s landfill on Staten Island, which operated for 50 years as the largest landfill in the United States. Today, it is being redeveloped into parks, sports fields, wildlife protection, and hike and bike trails. Meadows and shrubs are usually planted in a layer of topsoil as the last layer of the cap, preventing erosion and protecting the deeper layers from cracking. Open spaces are the typical use for redeveloped landfills because as the waste breaks down over time, there is a risk that the ground will sink down and shift slightly. However, modern compacting technology can even allow buildings to be safely built on top of old landfills – for instance, see the Boulevards at South Bay, which aims to shopping centers, residences, restaurants, and more on a former Los Angeles municipal landfill.

The key to ensuring safety at any redeveloped landfill is good engineering that caps the site safely and adequate monitoring for contaminant release. All caps should be designed with the details of the specific site in mind – what sort of waste it contains, the climate of the area, and what future uses will be. If careful planning and appropriate precautions are taken, what was once a dangerous eyesore can become a much-needed community space.

Posted July 24th, 2012 at 11:30 am
Posted by Evan Reeves
Nov 14th, 2011

Determining Underutilized Property

What methodology is typically used to identify ‘underutilized parcels’?  - Daniel W. , County Planner

While there is no formal definition of “underutilized property” (the Federal definition applies only to Federally-owned land) you can rely on several measures, the most common used are economic or fiscal in nature, and usually refers to properties that can be put into a higher and/or better use in a financial, fiscal, community, social or environmental standpoint. And it would also depend on the needs of the community.

With the above as a caveat, a combination of any of the following have been used as measures of under-utilization. The final determination rests with the community and its priorities:

  • For the following, comparison of properties in similar zoning /land use designations, per square foot
    • Sales, property, business license or other taxes
    • Employees
    • Residential units
  • Vacancy, or partial vacancy
  • Non-conforming properties in higher use land use designations (i.e., grand-fathered industrial property in commercial district)
Posted November 14th, 2011 at 15:21 pm
Posted by Ignacio Dayrit
Sep 28th, 2011

Livability Principles

I keep encountering “The Livability Principles” in Federal grant announcements, such as HUD’s Sustainable Communities Grant Program and the EPA’s ARC Grants Program. How is redeveloping a brownfield consistent with these “Livability Principles”? – Nancy R., Development Associate

As background, the U.S. EPA partnered with HUD and DOT to help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide. The goals of this Partnership for Sustainable Communities include discouraging sprawl and encouraging location efficient investments, smart growth practices, and green infrastructure development. The Partnership established six livability principles that serve as a foundation for interagency coordination:

(1) Provide more transportation choices; (2) Promote equitable, affordable housing; (3) Increase economic competitiveness; (4) Support existing communities; (5) Leverage federal investment; and (6) Value communities and neighborhoods.

Brownfield redevelopment promotes these goals in several ways. Below are just a few:

Location, location, location. By their nature, most brownfields exist in developed areas, and therefore redevelopment of these properties supports existing communities. Due to their typically central or developed location, many brownfield sites already have access to the infrastructure and transportation network of the community, and are more accessible to job and population centers than undeveloped (i.e., greenfield) sites. This results in buildings which are closer to desired amenities and markets, leading to lower transportation costs and improved air quality from reduced vehicle use. Many brownfield projects are also taking advantage of their central location and mixed-use planning to create bikeable and walkable communities.

Affordability and leveraging. The Federal partners and many state agencies provide incentives to redevelop brownfield sites for residential use. When leveraged with local incentives and programs, communities are able to develop affordable housing. Brownfield projects improve environmental problems through cleanup and assessment, in addition to creating housing and accessing transportation, which makes them excellent opportunities for coordinating federal investment.

Economic competitiveness. The presence of brownfield sites tend to drag down neighborhoods and discourage investment in a community. Revitalizing these sites not only brings government resources, but also private investment into a community, thus improving the economic competitiveness of a neighborhood. Brownfield projects often generate new economic activity and community-serving amenities that increase local tax revenues and create jobs both during construction and after development.

Sustainable redevelopment practices. The Partnership promotes sustainable building practices that can be applied in planning and redevelopment. These include renewable energy, green building practices, low-impact development, recycling/reconstruction of building materials and green remediation – all of which can be implemented in brownfield redevelopment.

The benefits derived from the redevelopment of a particular brownfield site are location- and use-specific, so if you are applying for a grant, be sure to provide specific examples of how your project is supporting these principles. This post should help get the ideas rolling, but get into the details of your project: How is local perception of the site hindering economic growth? How many or what kind of jobs will your project create? Which transportation options are in close proximity to the project? How many and what kind of new housing opportunities will it provide? What new businesses are anticipated after redevelopment? Use facts and figures to tell your story.

For further information about the benefits of brownfield redevelopment (many of which are consistent with the livability principles), please check out CCLR’s Land Recycling 101.

Posted September 28th, 2011 at 16:33 pm
Posted by Ignacio Dayrit
Feb 18th, 2011

Brownfield Clean Up and Renewable Energy

I live in a community just outside city boundaries, with a total of about 50 homes on medium sized plots of land. There is a brownfield site that was once used for dumping waste, fuel, and other chemicals from over 50 years ago, and it is essentially just sitting there, building up rubble. The owner is asking a reasonable price for the land, but it is the clean up that scares us. We would like to embark on a communal building project that would utilize the site to install solar power for the community upon approval from the utility company. What resources are available to us to turn this dirt around into a renewable energy generating plot?      – Parker M., community member [paraphrased]

You have a 2 part question – one related to brownfields, and another related to renewable energy.

The appropriate cleanup for the site would first need to be determined. In order to determine your options, you will need to know the history of the site and who will eventually own the site. There are competitive and in-kind technical assistance grants available to public agencies and non-profits with real property interest on the site. The responsibility for cleanup and any future responsibility would be determined after environmental assessment studies are completed. For more information on who to contact in your area and how to begin a brownfield cleanup, contact CCLR (Ignacio Dayrit) at 415-398-1080 x107.

Renewable energy is the second part. The project needs a feasibility study. There is technical assistance available through the National Renewable Energy Laboratories ( and their local partners. There is a Technical Assistance Program (TAP) from the US Department of Energy – the local representative (you may have to work through the city/county energy representative) can be found here.

Posted February 18th, 2011 at 10:57 am
Posted by Ignacio Dayrit
Nov 18th, 2010

Where are the Brownfields? Part III

I am looking for a vacant property for industrial use in this particular city – how do I find one and how can I tell if it is a brownfield? – Scott C.

You are probably looking for a brownfield site because of potential funding available from the EPA and state agencies. If this is the case, the city may provide some information that would be useful in evaluating the eligibility of the site for financial incentives. You may also have to conduct additional research to determine if the site qualifies as a brownfield under the grantors guidelines.

Cities have varying policies and practices in regard to how they promote development sites. Some cities – through their planning, economic development, housing or redevelopment departments – create property inventories or designate opportunity sites/areas; some of which have previously been used, or may be vacant or underutilized. Some of these sites may be greenfield sites. You may have to conduct a site visit and/or investigate the previous use of the site using commonly available tools and sources of information Or you may also retain a qualified environmental professional to conduct this preliminary analysis on your behalf.

Based on this initial research, you will have a better understanding of how a site might qualify for financial incentives from the city, state or EPA.

Posted November 18th, 2010 at 11:03 am
Posted by Evan Reeves
Oct 18th, 2010

Urban Agrictulture & Brownfields

We are considering putting a community garden or farmer’s market in a site contaminated with asbestos. What issues should we consider? Is this eligible for EPA brownfields funding?

– Kathy A.

This is essentially 4 questions in 1, which need to be addressed separately:

First – Are sites with asbestos considered brownfields under EPA’s brownfields program?

In this case, yes, EPA allows brownfields funds to assess and remediate for asbestos.

Second – How is asbestos in soil treated?

If the asbestos will not be disturbed and will not be airborne, it generally does not have to be removed (varies by state and locality). Covering it with a protective layer of clean soil is usually sufficient. If there are plans to disturb the soil, then there are different regulations involved. It also depends on the state and local regulations.

Third – Can a farmer’s market be located on such a site?

Assuming there’s a protective soil layer of about 1 foot that protects the soil from being disturbed; having a farmer’s market should be acceptable.

Fourth – How about an urban gardening site?

The considerations are the design of the garden and the produce. Generally, using raised planter boxes (separated from native soil with a protective membrane) should be OK with a protective layer of clean soil and a membrane demarcating the native and imported soil. If there is planting at-grade and/or there are fruit trees, I would consider over-excavating soils where roots and gardening tools might get in contact with contaminated soil.

For more information, check out this US EPA website on Urban Agriculture & Improving Local, Sustainable Food Systems:

Posted October 18th, 2010 at 12:41 pm
Posted by Ignacio Dayrit
May 26th, 2010

Engaging Private Developers

As a city, how do I engage private developers in brownfields redevelopment in this economy? – Monica P., city redevelopment planner

First, the city will need to determine the type of development desired – commercial, retail, housing, industrial, residential or mixed-use. Within each category, there are also those who specialize by location and market type. The city can market their interest through various forums, such as their website, business associations and newspapers.

Second, the city should identify the locations where they would want development and collect information that is useful to a developer. Apart from baseline environmental information, the city can collect information on demographics, infrastructure, market analysis and financing assistance.

Third, the city can offer assistance on various levels to facilitate the analysis and development of a brownfields project. In addition to common tools used by cities, such as convening meetings with property owners and neighbors, assistance in obtaining grants and financing, assistance with project entitlement, the city can build partnerships with regulatory agencies, conduct exploratory brownfields assessments, or conduct more detailed assessments on sites that have been identified for redevelopment. The next step would be for the city to acquire strategic sites for redevelopment.

There is a range of activities that a city can take to demonstrate their commitment to brownfields redevelopment. Showing this commitment is another key step in attracting developers.

Posted May 26th, 2010 at 11:11 am
Posted by Ignacio Dayrit
Mar 3rd, 2010

Where are the Brownfields? – Part II

If a city does not have a brownfields inventory, how can I find a brownfield site for redevelopment?  – Carl H., partner

Few cities publish an inventory of brownfields sites due to liability reasons.  Local environmental or health departments are not tuned into brownfields redevelopment as they deal with enforcement or cleanup activity, rather than redevelopment activity. Contacting the economic, redevelopment or housing staff of cities is a better alternative. When you contact a city, don’t ask for a “brownfield” site.  Just ask if they have a list of sites identified for redevelopment.  If the site has not already been assessed or redeveloped, it may be because it is a brownfield.

You can also conduct research by reviewing online documents at each cities’ redevelopment agency or housing department.  Some cities will list preferred areas or target sites – these are not necessarily brownfields however.

Many cities have also received grants from the EPA to identify sites for assessment and redevelopment – this EPA website – – lists all the cities and counties that have received EPA assessment, cleanup and revolving loan fund grants.

Posted March 3rd, 2010 at 16:04 pm
Posted by Ignacio Dayrit
Feb 1st, 2010

Brownfield Appraisal

How does one appraise a brownfield property?  – Scott S., affordable housing developer

Placing a value on a brownfield site is a complicated matter.  Often, the valuation method is influenced by the purpose and timing of the appraisal, and the location of the site.  Appraisers may provide an “impaired” or “unimpaired” valuation.  For example, a site can be valued “as-clean” with qualifiers on factors which may reduce the valuation.  Ideally, a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment is conducted simultaneous to an appraisal so that any factors which impair the value can be disclosed.  In addition, if it is possible to conduct Phase II sampling, an environmental engineer and the regulatory agency may be able to provide estimates regarding probable clean up costs.

Posted February 1st, 2010 at 10:31 am
Posted by Ignacio Dayrit