Luring developers to rebuild on polluted land

New development springs up alongside the Atlanta’s new Historic 4th Ward Park and Eastside Trail. Both are projects spurred by the BeltLine, which has transformed this brownfield into a thriving recreation area.

When companies pack up and abandon places like apartment complexes, gas stations, factories, and rail yards, those properties often become what’s known as a brownfield.

Cleaning them up has become the focus of cities big and small.

This week, folks in Brownfield redevelopment from all over the nation are in Atlanta for the 2013 Brownfields Conference.  

And it’s no accident they picked Atlanta. The old railroad town is in the midst of a huge rebirth, spawned by a 22-mile system of trails, parks, and transit known as the BeltLine.

It’s been called “Atlanta’s best idea.” And it’s also one of the nation’s most successful brownfield clean-up stories.

“This most certainly is a Brownfield -- this was a Brownfield, I should say,” says Lee Harrop as he looks around a busy section of trailway in the northeast part of Atlanta known as the Old 4th Ward.

Amid the skyline views and park-like setting, bicyclists and runners create a steady stream of passers-by.

But this very area was a rail corridor for more than a century. And until about a year ago, it was a desolate area of urban blight.

“People call this the Hobo Highway,” says Harrop. “It was a source of dumping. It was a source of homelessness.  It was a source of really not what you wanted to see in the city.”

WhenBeltLine officials started sampling soil to find out what it would take to clean up this area, they discovered a toxic soup of contaminants in the soil, including arsenic, pesticides and dry cleaning solvents.

It was a wasteland,” confirms Jenny Everett, who lives in the neighborhood and remembers how she avoided the area at all costs.

Now, she runs along the trail three times a week.

Everett says she was skeptical when she heard what the BeltLine would do to the Old 4th Ward neighborhood.  But color her skeptical no more.

“The place is packed,” Everett says as she walks along the Northeast Trail.  “You have every possible type person out on this BeltLine, from mothers strolling their children to guys and girls walking their dogs to runners and bicyclists. It serves a lot of purposes for a lot of different people.”

None of this comes cheap.

For this two square-mile section of trail and adjoining park, the price tag was $63 million. But that’s spawned three-quarters of a billion dollars in redevelopment, BeltLine officials say.

It’s likely developers wouldn’t have touched this place with a 10-foot railroad spike if the city, state and federal governments hadn’t shouldered the cost of  cleanup.

And this story isn’t unique to Atlanta -- it’s the same in every U.S. city.

“There’s sometimes could be situations where you say that you’ve just got to pass,” says Janine Betsey, a developer who heads the King Park Area Development Corporation in Indianapolis.  

Betsey says brownfield cleanup can get expensive. And without a little help taxpayers, developers sometimes won’t take the risk.  If that seems unfair, she says consider what would happen if cities don’t clean up brownfield sites.   

“Contamination can leak into drinking water and other things throughout the community. So you’re really preserving the health of the entire community and not just cleaning up a property,” says Betsey.

Much of the money for cleanup comes from federal Environmental Protection Agency grants and loan funds a lot of this. The EPA  has spent tens of millions of dollars in some cases to clean up so-called “superfund” sites. But often, brownfield clean-ups are only a few thousand dollars says Mathy Stanislaus, an assistant administrator with the EPA.  

“Because you’re able to quantify the relatively manageable cost,” says Stanislaus. “You can quickly conduct any necessary cleanup and redevelop the site.”

So what used to be seen as a brown liability is suddenly becoming a green opportunity.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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