Brownfield redevelopment discussed at NECN forum

10/22/13 brownfields forumPanelists and community members discuss resources for brownfields redevelopment. L-R: Rep. Lew Frederick, Jenn Blidersee (BES), Stephen Green (PDC), Cassie Cohen (Groundwork Portland), Tyler Bump (BPS)

October 23, 2013 — At a public forum last night hosted by the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods’ Community Economic Development Council, five panelists discussed legislation and resources aimed at supporting the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields. Brownfields are underutilized or vacant properties that are either confirmed or feared to be contaminated as a result of past use.

Panelists highlighted the public health, environmental, and job creation benefits of cleaning-up contamination and returning brownfield properties to commercial or community uses. In the city of Portland, hundreds of acres of brownfields sit vacant, as property owners and potential purchasers worry about liability and remediation costs if contamination is discovered.

“Brownfields are an issue of social and environmental justice, because they are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color,” said panelist Cassie Cohen, Executive Director of Groundwork Portland, a Northeast Portland-based non-profit.

The panel featured State Rep. Lew Frederick (43rd Dist.), who discussed a 2011 Oregon law that can limit environmental cleanup liability for purchasers of contaminated sites. The intent of the law is to remove some of the financial uncertainty surrounding brownfields, which Frederick and other panelists cited as the most significant barrier to the acquisition and redevelopment of these properties. Frederick is working to pass other brownfields-related measures in the Legislature, including a tax credit for brownfields remediation that leads to job creation, and an Industrial Sites Cleanup Fund.

Tyler Bump, an Economic Planner with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, applauded Frederick’s efforts, pointing to the potential economic benefits for the city and the state if Portland’s brownfields were to be redeveloped for commerce and housing. In a January 2013 study, Bump estimated that full development of the city’s 910 acres of brownfields could create 31,000 jobs and generate $240 million in annual tax revenue at the local and state levels.

Panelists Jenn Bildersee and Stephen Green, representing the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) and Portland Development Commission (PDC), respectively, discussed local resources available for owners and prospective purchasers of brownfields:

  • BES’ Brownfield Program provides grants for environmental site assessments of potentially contaminated sites, and administers a revolving loan fund for cleanup of private properties.
  • PDC ‘s Development Opportunity Services program can reimburse 80% of approved pre-development costs, up to $12,000, for “exploring the feasibility of expanding a business or redeveloping an under-utilized site or building,” including brownfields.

June Key Delta Community Center
The Portland Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority turned an abandoned gas station into the June Key Delta Community Center at N. Albina and Ainsworth.

Presenters also shared examples of brownfield redevelopment projects in Portland that have been led by community-based organizations, including the June Key Delta Community Center (N. Albina & Ainsworth) and the Tabor Commons (SE Division & 57th). Cohen told the story of Groundwork Portland’s Emerson Street Garden project (822 NE Emerson), which cleaned-up a contaminated site and converted it to a community garden. Groundwork is now hoping to gain control of a brownfield site in East Portland.

The panelists agreed that gaining ownership or control of a property is the most daunting challenge for community-based groups that hope to repurpose brownfields. Though each property’s ownership situation is different, general strategies include community organizing, grassroots fundraising, applying for grants, and collaborating with government agencies and land trusts such as OSALT. Panelists emphasized that a key element in any such effort is building a collaborative relationship with the current property owner, and that resources exist for environmental assessment and cleanup once a property is in play.

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