Brownfields Can Improve Landscape

Hop in your vehicle and take a ride up or down any major waterway in the Ohio River Valley and you are sure to see abandoned buildings and run-down industrial sites — all big reminders of the heyday of manufacturing and production. These once formidable sites that helped power us through industrial revolutions and world wars are reminders of the powerhouse of industry our region used to be.

Although many of these sites are still active today, perhaps not producing what the sites originally were intended for, many of these sites are abandoned eyesores that hearken back to days gone by. These sites are generally referred to as brownfield sites.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines brownfields as “abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial sites where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination that can add cost, time or uncertainty to a redevelopment project.”

Imagine that you are standing at the locked gates of one of these abandoned industrial sites. What is it that you see? Do you see economic opportunity? Environmental contamination? Financial disaster? If you owned this property, you may have to deal with environmental regulations associated with the remnants of the site’s history.

Usually a real-estate lawyer would say to just leave the site as it is, leaving it to future generations to devise a solution.

Regulators generally view these sites as a threat to human safety, health and the environment.

If you are a neighboring homeowner, you may look at the site and reminisce about how your parent worked there for three decades.

A developer, however, may look at it and see economic opportunity, provided you could convince the property owner that you can address the environmental liabilities, work your way through the maze of environmental regulation, appease skeptical citizens and prove to your lender that it is worth taking a risk to finance such a project.

If you could accomplish all these things, the last question would be, can I earn a sufficient rate of return on this investment after all these hurdles are overcome?

It takes a lot of knowledge of the law, environmental assessment and remediation, finance, real estate, insurance and economic development to be successful at developing a brownfield site.

In addition, to developing the site for another use, one factor that can be overlooked is the importance of reestablishing native vegetation where possible.

This can be a challenging task. One must consider the general environmental conditions of the site that may affect survival and growth of native species, the site’s planting zone, the soil conditions, the presence of invasive species, moisture requirements and plant associations. It is often appropriate to start with pioneer species that establish quickly in harsh conditions, leading to a significantly more diverse community at some point in the future.

Improving soil conditions, reducing soil erosion and dealing with invasive plants are all important factors to consider in successfully re-vegetating a brownfield site. While ecological function should be considered early in the site remediation process, re-vegetation is by far the most pressing factor in determining success.

If the site can be repurposed for another use and have native vegetation established, brownfield redevelopment can be considered a success. Although each individual site may seem like a small gain, successfully redeveloping brownfield sites and re-vegetating them up and down our river corridors provides a positive legacy for our current generation and for generations to come.

Gabe Hays owns the consulting firm of Hays Landscape Architecture Studio in St. Clairsville, which joined WallacePancher Group in 2016. He has provided design and construction documents in 12 states, for site development projects including native landscapes, private gardens, historic properties, botanic gardens, resorts and parks.