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Urban Wonk

How Congress Could Help Create the Next Great Neighborhood

How Congress Could Help Create the Next Great Neighborhood
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In Brooklyn, you don’t have to look far to see a hip neighborhood spot that was once a contaminated empty lot.

The East River State Park in Williamsburg was built on the site of a former rail-to-barge shipping terminal. A Whole Foods is under construction in Gowanus on a site previously vacant and contaminated with benzene*. 15 Dunham is a new residential building near the Williamsburg Bridge with affordable housing built atop a former gas station. A high-end design studio for race car engines sits on a cleaned-up site in Williamsburg that stood vacant for nearly 25 years. And plans are under way to turn the massive Domino Sugar Factory site, currently decaying on the Williamsburg waterfront, into park space, offices, apartments and retail.

Similar projects in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego and Nashville have created concert venues, parks, live/work loft space and shops on land once too polluted to use.

All these places were once brownfields, contaminated and abandoned land in need of remediation. The EPA estimates there are more than 450,000 brownfield sites in the United States, with many more that are undocumented. Rusted rail yards, old factories, shuttered gas stations, decaying warehouses and other brownfield sites blight neighborhoods in every city in the country. At an average of 6.5 acres per site, nearly 4,570 square miles of land in the United States are in need of remediation.

Redeveloping these sites is good for the environment and the economy, but for even the most intrepid urban developers a “Keep Out: Toxic Waste” sign isn’t exactly encouraging. Cleanup can be expensive, and there are relatively few tools available to help redevelopment efforts move along.

A new bill introduced today in Congress could change all that. The Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development Act of 2013—or BUILD Act for short—would help local governments and other entities clean up and revitalize brownfield sites. Brownfields cleanup drives economic growth while giving local governments the flexibility to pursue projects they need the most.

The BUILD Act has bipartisan support—noteworthy in and of itself in this Congress—and its sponsors hail from a broad array of states, each with their own brownfield challenges. Senators Lautenberg (D-NJ), Inhofe (R-OK) Crapo (R-ID) and Udall (D-NM) all signed on as original sponsors of the bill, a telling example of just how ubiquitous the issue is.

The bill reauthorizes a wide array of financial and development tools for communities to help with site assessment and cleanup, all administered by the EPA’s Brownfields program. Among its provisions, the BUILD Act expands non-profit eligibility to receive brownfields grants and also allows the EPA to award flexible multipurpose grants to take into account the varied nature of many projects. More information about the specifics of the bill is available at Smart Growth America.

Ultimately the BUILD Act could help communities across the country create the kind of development that’s an integral part of the country’s most vibrant places.  Brownfields represent tremendous economic development opportunities. The BUILD Act could help communities make it happen.

*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the chemical that had contaminated a former-brownfield site in Gowanus as benzyne. It is benzene.

Top Image: East River State Park in Brooklyn was once a rail-to-barge shipping facility, a use that left the site contaminated. A brownfields grant from the EPA helped clean up the site. Photo courtesy of Graham Coreil-Alllen/Flickr.

Craig Chester is a communications fellow at Smart Growth America in Washington, D.C. He is also an editor of TransitMiami.com, a web journal and advocacy organization dedicated to smart growth oriented land use policies and mutlimodal transportation in South Florida. All posts »

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