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Perspective: Is Climate Changing for Brownfields and Redevelopment?

By Markus Niebanck

A Brownfield redevelopment project requires the following: land (impaired) a regulatory body, a regulated entity (developer) and people—people that live next to and near the project property, people that will live in, work at or visit the reinvented property when the project is complete.

A successful Brownfield redevelopment project requires one additional ingredient: A productive relationship between these component parts. The pieces can't just exist isolated in space but must fit together well.

As a consequence of a number of recent high-visibility California project/case upsets, the relationships required for successful Brownfield redevelopment projects are on potentially shaky ground. Unless attended to, practitioners should anticipate a complicated climate and a less predictable concept-to-completion regulatory path.

Communities affected by these abandoned contaminated properties should expect a chilling of enthusiasm to clean and revitalize, as process/endpoint predictability is a critical element for the "go" option to be chosen in the project's "go/no-go" decision-making process.

Given these developments and their broader influence (events in California can, for better or worse, have an effect elsewhere about the country) it's important that we make a conscious effort to pause and check our collective compass. To make sure the potentially redirective influence of recent events doesn't take us all to a place we'd rather not be.

The space of years that's passed since the recognition of the "Brownfield" affect plays a role in our present dilemma. October 17 marks 30 years since the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) to CERCLA—30 years since the refinement of the rules that for better or worse made the context for the relationship between regulators and the regulated and created the space for engagement of affected and interested community stakeholders.

Thirty years is a long time, and as Brownfield players leave the field the institutional memory evolves. Yesterday is yesterday for the newer practitioners—be they regulatory, private-sector technical, or neighbors/justice in their practice and orientation—today is today.

But the span of years alone doesn't explain the current state of affairs. There seems also to be an erosion of fundamental relationship attributes. Simply, people don't seem to be playing together as nicely as they used to.

From my vantage point, first and foremost in our practice of compass-checking and calibration is the hopeful agreement that we're still a collective community aligned to a largely common objective; if we were each to make a list of Important Things we'd generally have the same priorities in the same places in a similar order.

A close second is an examination of the attribute that holds the relationship together—trust. Trust, as we've experienced, is elusive. Trust must be earned and, if lost, is not often easily regained. Fundamentally, trust flows from honesty and competence.

If trust is lacking or has been lost in association with oversight or error, those involved must admit the mistake and demonstrate what's been learned, show how through this experience the skills and insight required to prevent making the same mistake again have been gained. And as important, when your partner makes a mistake then makes amends, you must forgive them.

One additional aspect of project/case upsets must be recognized: Despite our best intentions and vigilance, factors outside our control can align to an unpredictable outcome. Project upsets can occur not because people were evil or greedy or mean, not because those involved didn't try—the upset simply happened.

And finally, we have to recognize that the affirmation and acknowledgement described above can be impeded by human nature. To wit, human nature inclines us often to justify, hide or ignore a bad fact. To form a committee to study the issue and hope that by the time the committee finishes its work the problem will have been forgotten and attention already turned to something new. The collaborative, productive relationship required for the delivery of successful Brownfield projects cannot abide this aspect of human nature.

Responsible redevelopment of Brownfield property is often the only viable means for the removal of hazardous material from abandoned post-industrial land. And in certain settings, Brownfield redevelopment provides economic investment that might not otherwise occur in communities very much in need of opportunity and revitalization. Irrespective what needs tending we cannot lose sight of these fundamental truths.

In 1967, Stephen Stills wrote: "There's battle lines being drawn, nobody's right if everybody's wrong..."

Written for a different purpose, clearly, and decades before CERCLA and SARA — but the words hold true here. It's time we sit down together with our partners, take out our compass and together chart an informed course to a destination that serves our purposes and the needs of those who rely upon our work.

Markus Niebanck, PG is a Brownfield practitioner in Oakland, California.

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