Gaining Ground

"Houston, we have a problem." The famous distress call of the troubled spaceship Apollo 13 is something the southern Texas city has heard many times and in many ways over the past few decades. This is especially true concerning the hundreds of contaminated and neglected sites found in and around the city.

However, Houston also is a city with a solution to its environmental problems. According to information reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., last December, Houston leads the nation in the redevelopment of Brownfields, those abandoned and contaminated industrial properties that often are left for dead.

Since the Houston Brownfields Redevelopment Program began in 1996 with a $200,000 EPA pilot grant, the city has reused more than 500 acres of Brownfields. In doing so, more than 2,300 jobs have been created and more than $1.7 million in taxes have been returned to the city, county and school district. Additionally, the program has created dozens of opportunities for local waste haulers to take part in an environmental program that is turning eyesores into assets.

Brownfields redevelopment programs currently underway in the city include construction of a new baseball stadium, two new golf courses, a new performing arts center, nearly 1,000 new housing units and even new retail projects to attract shoppers back to downtown.

"This is such a positive program, with positive impacts on surrounding sites," says Dawn Moses, the city's Brownfields coordinator in the mayor's environmental policy office. "Redevelopment of one piece of property often spurs development in other nearby locations."

Various studies have placed the number of sites nationwide that qualify as Brownfields to be as high as 400,000. In the past few decades, under the long shadow of the Superfund law, it has been extremely risky and costly for developers to acquire Brownfields properties for redevelopment. Traditionally, buyers of such properties have been exposed to liability risks for cleaning up environmental contamination, even if the buyer didn't contribute to the contamination.

"Many of these sites were, at one time, thriving factories; now they are sources of neighborhood blight," EPA Administrator Carol Browner has said. "They contain just enough toxic wastes - or maybe even just the possibility of contamination - to frighten off potential developers and other businesses concerned about getting stuck with the responsibility for cleaning up the mistakes of the past."

Aside from the political and financial issues, however, is the very real notion of dealing with severe contamination. A developer's instinct is to work on sites that are "clean," not those that might be laced with such hazardous materials as lead, mercury, chromium, vinyl chloride, or benzene.

Texas's long history of cattle ranching has left yet another unfortunate byproduct behind: arsenic. Years ago, the standard "cattle wash" - to rid the animals from ticks, fleas and biting insects - was a mixture of arsenic and DDT. That combination has worn into the earth lying beneath dozens of Brownfields.

Consequently, many of these sites have remained untouched as just another part of the fraying urban fabric. In the last decade, however, federal and state governments have encouraged redevelopment of these sites through grants and voluntary cleanup programs. In many cases, such work ensures some relief from environmental liability.

Today, 35 states have some sort of voluntary Brownfields cleanup program - and Texas is one such state. In Houston in particular, a remarkably diverse group of stakeholders - representatives from the waste industry, local neighborhoods and businesses, as well as government officials - have come together to create a redevelopment model worthy of emulation.

But just as not all troubled sites are Brownfields, not all contaminated sites qualify for Houston's program. A site plagued only with asbestos, for instance, needs some environmental attention but is not complicated enough to be considered a Brownfields.

To take part in the Houston program, local property owners and developers voluntarily submit their project, which must meet certain criteria for consideration. Chief among these are that the property must have real or perceived environmental contamination and must be underused or abandoned with realistic potential for redevelopment. The property owner or potential purchaser must provide actual plans for reuse or cleanup, and must give the city written authorization to designate the site as a Brownfield.

Furthermore, the site must not already be targeted on the federal National Priorities List. With continuing financial assistance from EPA, the city offers several benefits to qualifying projects: free environmental site assessments to determine the nature and extent of the contamination, assistance in participating in the state's voluntary cleanup program, coordination among intergovernmental agencies, and exposure on the city's comprehensive Brownfields website.

Success Stories Particularly interesting in Houston is that the city has no zoning - which allows various development types to occur in a single area. This can be both a liability and an asset. On the one hand, when landfills, railyards or industrial sites are closed and fall into a state of neglect or disrepair - becoming Brownfields - it negatively affects entire sections of town. On the plus side, however, rehabilitation of these sites has proven to rejuvenate the aesthetics, the economy and the spirit of formerly blighted neighborhoods. This is what the city is counting on.

The city currently has several interesting redevelopment projects underway. One project that the city is pointing to as a key example of partnership is a new golf course being built on a former landfill. Local hauler Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), Houston, the site owner, has joined with EnCap Golf LLC, Tampa, Fla., to develop a state-of-the-art, 450-acre golf course on the former landfill site, which is located a few blocks south of the Astrodome. Expected to open later this year, the golf facility will include two 18-hole golf courses, a full-service clubhouse, a well-equipped practice and training facility, and a pitch and putt area.

During this project, the city repeatedly met with BFI, the developer and environmentalists, who were concerned about how the new golf course would affect the wetland habitat. The environmentalists argued that a couple of the planned holes would have to be removed. Obviously, one cannot have an 18-hole golf course with only 15 holes, so the parties continued to tweak the plan until they reached a compromise.

As the owner, BFI has remained significantly involved in the project from its inception, from installing a landfill gas extraction system to providing refreshments for a community meeting. It not only is good community relations for the company to do so, but it is absolutely necessary in this age of environmental finger-pointing, Moses says. "BFI always will be in the chain of title for this site," she explains. "While it is altruistic, it also serves BFI to have a role and participate in the process."

Another project that the city is particularly proud of is a new baseball stadium being built on land assembled from industrial properties and a former rail station. This project illustrates how labor-intensive and sensitive some of these efforts can be. Like many Brownfields, the site had contained various and sundry buildings that had seen several different uses. Over the past century, the ground had been contaminated with petroleum products and lead.

Because construction of the stadium required excavation of more than 400,000 cubic yards of soil, it was imperative that it be handled properly. Therefore, extensive analytical testing was conducted prior to the excavation to classify the soil, which was then transported to an appropriately permitted landfill from January 1998 through last year.

Although none of the soil was considered hazardous, it also was not allowed to leave the site for "unrestricted use." That way, the state could be assured that no contaminated soil was placed on residential properties, day-care centers or other sensitive places. The definition of "clean" is governed by the state and varies from site to site, depending on its intended redevelopment use. In another project, it might have been necessary and sufficient to put a parking lot over the contaminated soil instead of trucking it away.

Other projects are as diverse as the city itself. At one four-acre site, a new senior retirement village and restaurant sit on what was once a dry cleaners, laundromat and residential area. At another site, 74 apartment units will be developed on a former used car lot and truck parts storage site. An old coliseum will be transformed into a center for the performing arts in another project. And in this age of suburban sprawl, a new shopping center in an underserved area of Houston will service nearby residents.

Not a Never-Neverland Despite the undeniable success of Houston's Brownfields redevelopment program, the city still struggles with the perception among developers and the general public that getting involved in these sites will submerse them in a financial, political and environmental quagmire. Even with ever-evolving legislation to ease the burden of environmental liability on Brownfields managers and developers, the phrase that people still remember is "the polluter pays." Just being associated with a site might unfairly label them a "polluter," some believe.

"The reason I don't have 50 sites going right now is because of the perception that it's too much trouble," Moses says. "With a program like this, you do your best to share the information, and you find different venues to say it so that people eventually hear what you're saying. This type of redevelopment is happening in cities all around the United States and the world."

With the prospect of sending a hundred trucks onto a site to haul hazardous waste products to an approved landfill, obviously the waste industry needs to stay in the loop as well. Moses occasionally gets calls from waste industry officials looking for work, but she also urges them to be proactive about finding out about projects. This means reaching out to developers about possible partnerships - and staying informed about proposed redevelopment projects.

But the city provides opportunities for communication as well. Every year, the mayor and the Brownfields office host a workshop for developers and interested parties to demystify the process of redeveloping derelict sites. "We want to show them that it has been done before, that they're not the first," Moses says. In addition, the mayor has appointed members to serve on the Land Redevelopment Committee, a group of volunteers who meet regularly to discuss Brownfields issues.

This provides a forum for ongoing discussion about proposed projects and those underway. Perhaps most importantly, the meetings provide education about new technologies and techniques. The committee meetings are open to just about anyone interested in Brownfields - developers, lawyers, environmentalists, bankers and the general public.

That openness is refreshing. The general public is accustomed, unfortunately, to being the last to know. One of the potentially troublesome aspects of working with these sites, for instance, is that they are too often in poor minority-dominated neighborhoods, raising the issue of "environmental racism," also called "environmental justice."

Although most would agree that redeveloping these sites is a good thing, some developers might find it more expedient to turn a Brownfields into a storage facility rather than into new movie theaters. That might be easy money for the developer, but how does it help the neighborhood?

Houston deals with this problem by maintaining open lines of communication. "It is really, really important to have an ongoing dialogue on these projects - input from all the stakeholder groups, including the affected communities - because any one of these stakeholders can make or break a project," Moses says. "The environmental justice issue has been successfully dealt with in this program because we have this opportunity for community input. Most developers who want to establish a business that is not embraced by the community will choose to do so on their own with a site that is not part of the program."

Even as the Brownfields office continues to work with developers to remediate forsaken sites, and as the waste industry does its part to haul away contaminated materials, the city of Houston realizes that this is not just a story about hazardous waste, government regulation, environmental issues, or money.

Ultimately, it is a story about neighborhoods and about people. As Moses points out, "Just the fact that something new is happening there, that it's not a forgotten never-neverland, gives people hope." WA