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Metro: Brownfields offer a path to new development

Regional agency hopes report will guide job creation


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Much of South Waterfront was contaminated and had to be cleaned up before development could begin.
South Waterfront is an example of brownfield redevelopment on a large scale. Hundreds of acres of contaminated and underutilized land in Portland along the Willamette River are being cleaned up and converted into residential towers, medical buildings and educational facilities.

A recent Metro report suggests that thousands of other acres of brownfields in the region could boost the economy and provide needed housing if they were cleaned up and redeveloped, too.

The Regional Brownfield Scoping Project estimates there may be as many as 2,300 properties in the region that are potentially contaminated and either vacant or underutilized. This represents about 7 percent of all commercial, mixed use and industrial zoned lands within the urban growth boundary administered by Metro.

According to the report, under land-use regulations, redevelopment of the entire inventory could yield up to 71 million square feet of new development, including 138,000 new dwelling units and work space for about 69,000 more jobs, generating nearly $1.4 billion in additional wages and as much as $427 million in new property tax revenue.

“Obviously, this is a tremendous potential resource,” says Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington, who pushed for the report.

However, both the report and Harrington warn there are many obstacles to coverting the brownfields to productive uses. They include a lack of money and other incentives to clean them up. The report lists three pages of tools — ranging from tax incentives to new state funds — that could be used to hasten the process.

But even then, the report warns that real estate market challenges might hinder their redevelopment.

“It’s very complicated, and the report is very preliminary,” says Harrington.

Harrington is scheduled to present the report to the Metro Policy Advisory Committee on Thursday, Nov. 14. MPAC is created by the Metro Charter and comprised of local government representatives and citizens. Its mission is to advise the elected Metro Council on land use, growth management and transportation issues.

“What we need to do right now is start discussing the report and deciding where we go from here,” says Harrington.

Sustainable development vision

Metro’s report notes that many programs already exist on the federal, state and local levels to foster the redevelopment of brownfields. However, the report says, more must be done to achieve regional land-use goals.

“Increasing the rate of redevelopment of underutilized and contaminated properties, known as ‘brownfields,’ is critical to achieving the Portland metropolitan region’s growth management and sustainable development vision. Growth management laws and market trends are both directing growth in the Portland metropolitan region into cities and older communities, where legacy contamination of soil and groundwater from historical activities create barriers to successful redevelopment,” according to the report.

According to Metro Regional Planning Manager John Williams, the report is not based on a physical inspection of all known and suspected brownfields. Instead, it includes educated guesses about where they are likely located, based on historic development trends in the region.

A map included in the report shows known and suspected brownsfields concentrated in heavily urbanized areas, such as along the Willamette River through downtown Portland. Some are well-documented, such as the Superfund sites in the Portland Harbor. Others are suspected to be in the urbanized centers that developed along major transportation corridors.

“Our downtowns formed where commerce was taking place,” says Harrington.

But the map also shows brownfields to be scattered in rural Clackamas and Washington counties.

“Brownfields aren’t only created by industrial use. They can also be farms where pesticides were heavily used or fuel spills occurred,” says Williams.

The report notes that approximately 50 percent of reported or suspected brownfields are in or within 1,000 feet of sensitive environmental areas, such as wetlands and streams. Brownfields are also likely to be located in a community designated as underserved by Metro’s Equity Composite, which measures such factors as family incomes.

Construction costs

It is no surprise that brownfields are harder to redevelop than other properties. After all, they have to be cleaned up. But as the report found, cleanup costs vary tremendously from brownfield to brownfield. A study of 100 cleanup projects found the costs ranged from $58,920 to $695,639 per acres.

But both the report and Harrington note that cleanup costs are a relatively small percent of overall redevelopment costs.

“Depending on the kind of project, constructions costs can be a lot more than cleanup costs. A new office building costs millions to build,” says Harrington.

Because all projects are different, the report calls for the consideration of a wide range of incentives and other tools for encouraging the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields. They include tax credits and abatements to offset cleanup costs, the creation of a dedicated state fund for the cleanup of brownfields, and new programs to encourage the investment of additional private capital in such projects.

Harrington says it is too early to know whether Metro will ask the 2013 Legislature to consider any of these suggestions. She wants to discuss the report with the MPAC members and other Metro councilors before deciding what to do next.

However, Harrington wants the decisions to be made before Metro considers whether to expand the urban growth boundary for new development again. That process is scheduled to begin next year.