Brownfields Revitalization Cuts Urban Blight, Suburban Sprawl, by Syd Gernstein

As concern over “urban sprawl” intensifies, the Bush Administration is coming to the rescue by making it easier to revitalize decaying city infrastructures. This will both lessen the need for cities to expand and create new jobs and new sources of revenue.

Previously ignored, blighted urban areas can be rehabilitated into productive space. “Brownfield” revitalization received a boost from President George W. Bush in January when he signed into law increased funding for clean-ups and protections for those seeking to beat back urban decay and help the inner cities through brownfields restoration. The White House is also expected to seek twice the existing level of federal funding levels for brownfield clean-ups, from $98 million this year to $200 million next year.1

Brownfields are abandoned commercial and industrial sites that are suspected to suffer from environmental contamination. Even as shortages of prime urban real estate were forcing businesses and families to move out of the cities, these downtown brownfields were remaining idle due to legal and regulatory uncertainties that plagued redevelopment options.

These regulatory uncertainties made it difficult, risky and impractical for entrepreneurs to invest in brownfield redevelopment. Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund), a new owner could potentially be held liable for environmental wrongdoing that happened on the land before purchase.2 With such potentially costly and ambiguous liability, it’s no wonder businesses chose the safety of suburban locations over inner city brownfields. Inconsistencies between state and federal environmental laws governing brownfield redevelopment projects3 further discouraged private investment.

Relief did not come until local lawmakers cleared the uncertainties and eliminated liability concerns through legislation like Ohio’s “Covenant Not To Sue.” Lessening the risks to investors allowed cities to enjoy the benefits of brownfield redevelopment.

One obvious benefit of brownfield redevelopment is that it eases the need for metropolitan expansion. It allows a city to grow by making better use of the space it already occupies.

Brownfield clean-ups also create jobs. Labor is needed for the physical process of redeveloping a brownfield site, and jobs are created by the businesses that move into them. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that the redevelopment of 81,568 acres of brownfield sites could create 550,000 jobs nationally.4 Such job creation benefits the entire economy, from large corporations to members of the low-income minority communities that often are located near brownfields.

Brownfield redevelopment also creates millions of dollars of tax revenue that otherwise would have found its way out of the cities.

Across the nation, brownfield redevelopment projects have been successful time and time again. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, the abandoned and decaying Jenkens Valvesite plant used to be an eyesore at the gateway to the city. The city redeveloped part of this brownfield into a new 5,500-seat baseball stadium, and plans to use the additional land for an indoor ice rink and museum. The stadium alone created 361 jobs, 68 of which are permanent.5

In Buffalo, New York, the former Republic Steel site – once considered hopelessly contaminated – was converted into a $16 million, 22-acre hydroponic tomato farm and greenhouse facility. This created 175 new jobs.6 The decaying Spicklemier Industries complex in Indianapolis, Indiana was converted into a 20,000-square-foot office space and a self-storage facility. Before redevelopment, the land was appraised at $182,500. The current value is $2.62 million.7

These examples of brownfield redevelopment share several characteristics. In each case, an abandoned brownfield was converted into a beneficial community project. Each redevelopment project created jobs and tax revenue while eliminating urban decay and easing expansion.

The benefits of brownfield clean-ups sound almost too good to be true. After all, few commercial projects are capable of simultaneously meeting the concerns of those with a passion for the environment while providing the economic stimulation those with an eye on the bottom line believe is necessary. The more legal and regulatory hurdles to brownfield redevelopment fall, the more cities and the people living in them will be able to benefit.


Syd Gerntein is a research associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research and its Center for Environmental Justice. 


1 “Bush Plan Would Double ‘Brownfields’ Cleanup Funds,” Washington Post, January 11, 2002, p. A05.
2 Mary Bielen, “Brownfields and Their Redevelopment,” Ohio State University, downloaded from on June 21, 2001.
3 Ibid.
4 “City Report Shows Effects of Brownfields in America,” U.S. Conference of Mayors, Washington, DC, downloaded from on June 7, 2000.
5 “Bridgeport’s Restored Gateway Leads to a Whole New Impression,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, downloaded from on June 21, 2001.
6 “Buffalo, New York: From Polluted Steel Graveyard to Thriving Tomato Farm,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, downloaded from on June 21, 2001.
7 “Concrete to Cash in Indianapolis,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, downloaded form on June 21, 2001.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.