Brownfields: The land of opportunity, not blight

By Ryan Spencer, Senior Environmental Scientist

The term “brownfield” describes property that has the presence or potential presence of hazardous materials, pollution, or contamination. Generally, brownfields consist of current or former industrial, manufacturing, or recycling sites that are vacant and underutilized by the community. However, they can also include current/former gas stations or drycleaner sites located in residential neighborhoods. Brownfield sites are often an eyesore and contain dilapidated buildings, poorly kept grounds, and miscellaneous trash. Cities usually obtain ownership of brownfield sites through tax forfeiture which causes concern due to unknown environmental risks and pressure to redevelop. Rather than viewing a brownfield site as a liability, experienced cities and developers see them as an opportunity.

In recent years, brownfield redevelopment has become more common due to infill redevelopment and the shortage of developable land in urban areas. Through up-front work and investments, communities can take steps to ensure their brownfields are attractive to developers and ready for redevelopment. Additionally, there are numerous investigation and cleanup funding sources available along with additional avenues to obtain liability assurances, which help curb redevelopment costs and reduce contamination liability.

Do your due diligence
Performing environmental due diligence on a brownfield site uncovers potential environmental risks and contamination liabilities. Investing in the upfront due diligence is an important step in any successful redevelopment project. Typically, this is achieved by completing a Phase I Environmental Assessment (ESA), subsequent Phase II ESA (if warranted), and an Asbestos and Regulated Materials Survey on buildings (if present). The potential environmental risks are always scarier than actual risks. Once the environmental risk area is understood, the site is one step closer to redevelopment.

How do I fund this?
Investigation and cleanup funding are critical components of brownfield projects. If you don’t have the money, where do you start? There are many local, state, and federal funding sources available for brownfield projects in Minnesota. This is great, but can also be overwhelming. It’s important to understand the funding source application requirements, schedule, and scoring criteria. Funding is typically awarded in cycles (often biannually), resulting in vigorous competition among projects. The projects that best meet the funding source’s criteria will be awarded funding.

Upcoming funding opportunities
In Minnesota, two major investigation/cleanup funding sources include:

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Contamination Cleanup and Redevelopment Grants – Applications Due May 1 and November 1 each year.

These grants are available to both public and private redevelopment sites and can be used for environmental investigation and/or cleanup. Applications are eligible if known or suspected soil or groundwater contamination is present. Key scoring criterion include; creating and retaining jobs and affordable housing.

Additional information regarding DEED funding can be found at:

Metropolitan Council Tax Base Revitalization Account (TBRA) – Applications Due November 1 each year.

TBRA provides $5 million annually to investigate and clean up brownfields for public and private redevelopment sites. The funding is limited to sites located within the 7-county Twin Cities metro region and key scoring criteria include; increasing tax base, preserving livable wage jobs, and producing affordable housing.

Additional information regarding TBRA funding can be found at:

Brownfields – a path to prosperity
A successful brownfield redevelopment can have a substantial impact on a community. It spurs economic momentum while showing commitment to continuous city improvements. Surly Brewing in Minneapolis was once a blighted underutilized property and is now a booming social attraction with rapid development occurring around it. Similarly, Kaposia Landing in South St. Paul – a popular waterfront park and recreation area – was once a landfill with little to no community value.

The next time you drive by a vacant underutilized property, think of what could be. Chances are, you are not the only one who has a vision of the site being repurposed, revitalized, and an asset to the community.

Ryan Spencer is a Sr. Environmental Scientist on WSB’s Environmental team. His expertise extends to Phase I & II Environmental Site Assessments, construction soil screening and documentation, contamination disposal and other hazardous material mitigation. He consults closely with both public organizations and private developers on their environmental needs.

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