brownfields

Brownfield Revitalization & the Infrastructure Bill

By Ryan Spencer, Director of Environmental Investigation and Remediation and Jeffery Rice, Sr Project Manager, WSB

Community leaders are always searching for ways to expand their city’s tax base, add jobs, build housing, and develop sites in ways that benefit residents and the community. Brownfields – previously developed sites that are no longer in use – are underutilized spaces that present real opportunity for economic, social, and environmental revitalization. Passed late last year, the federal infrastructure bill allocates $1.5 billion in new funding that can go toward revitalizing brownfields, providing meaningful opportunities for communities across the nation.

Whether a community is urban or rural, there is new funding available that can help revitalize and redevelop brownfields in a way that meets community needs, spurs growth, and reflects the priorities of residents.

But where to start, and how to tap into opportunities to revitalize brownfields? Here are some ways to start.

Evaluating Site Assessment & Cleanup

There are two basic categories that a brownfield falls into to qualify for grant funding. The first is an environmental assessment and the second is for site cleanup.

Communities must perform an environmental assessment (also called environmental due diligence) to determine if a site is contaminated and what kinds of contamination are present. This includes performing a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) to identify recognized environmental conditions (RECs) and other potential hazards. If RECs are identified, then a follow-up Phase II ESA is recommended which includes advancing environmental borings and the collection of soil, soil vapor, and groundwater samples for chemical analysis. If historical buildings or other improvements are present at a site, sampling to determine the presence of asbestos, lead-based paint, or other regulated materials must be completed prior to demolition or renovation. The environmental assessment phase is useful to determine the scope/magnitude of cleanup or soil management necessary for redevelopment.

After a thorough environmental assessment is complete, the next stage uses grants to help fund site cleanup to spur redevelopment. A response action plan (RAP) is required for most cleanup grant applications. The RAP summarizes known types and locations of contamination at the site and outlines the response action methods and protocols that will be used to protect human health and the environment during redevelopment. For most projects, the goal is to manage the contamination encountered during redevelopment, not to clean up the site completely which typically is not feasible or practical.

Identifying Opportunities and Risk

Local government must be able to identify the value in brownfield assessment and clean up, obtain and maintain community buy-in for the investment, and find willing developers that are interested in working on redeveloping brownfield sites.

While some communities can be risk adverse on brownfields, the upside can be significant. Underutilized parts of a community can be revitalized to provide more low-income housing, grow the tax base, improve neighborhoods, and more.

The infrastructure bill was designed to reduce barriers to brownfield redevelopment and spur more economic and environmental development.

Collaborating with Partners

Partnerships in revitalizing brownfield sites can help position a project for success. Support from local leaders and city council, engagement with community stakeholders, and partnerships with developers interested in working on the project can all help build momentum for a project and improve its value.

Part of securing funding for brownfield projects is telling the story of how the change will revitalize and improve a community and explain how it has strong support within the community. This is especially important in the cleanup phase of the project.

How WSB Can Help

Brownfield assessment, cleanup, and revitalization involves many steps, but WSB works with communities and can help leaders navigate the process. That assistance can include environmental assessment services, assistance with grant applications and securing funding sources, community engagement, helping with project readiness, brownfield revitalization planning and design, and more.

Brownfield revitalization is a big investment that can pay off in big ways for communities, and the federal infrastructure bill provides additional funding to help jumpstart, assess, and cleanup sites across the country. The professionals at WSB are here to help you identify, apply for, and utilize money from the Infrastructure bill to help your community grow through revitalizing compromised land.

Ryan Spencer is Director of Environmental Investigation and Remediation. 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.

rspencer@wsbeng.com | 612.723.3644

Jeffrey has over 20 years of environmental experience including due diligence, asbestos and regulated material assessments/removal oversight and construction monitoring for response action plan/construction contingency plan implementation projects. He has provided a range of environmental services for commercial and industrial sites as well as municipal and state roadway and highway improvements projects.

jrice@wsbeng.com | 612.916.7067

WSB Promotes Ryan Spencer to Director of Environmental Investigation and Remediation

In his new role, Spencer will help lead and grow the EIR team, providing services to government, energy, and private clients throughout WSB’s footprint.

Engineering and consulting firm WSB announced today that Ryan Spencer has been promoted to director of environmental investigation and remediation (EIR). In his new role, Spencer will help lead and grow the EIR team, providing services to government, energy, and private clients throughout WSB’s footprint. He has more than 14 years of industry experience, including nearly a decade at WSB. 

“At WSB, our directors are not only technical experts in their field, but they also bring meaningful leadership to our business development work. Ryan Spencer has been an outstanding resource for our internal and external staff related to brownfield clean up and securing critical grants to fund these projects,” said Andi Moffatt, vice president of environmental services at WSB. “This is a well-deserved promotion, and we know he will continue to provide unparalleled service to clients and guide creative solutions to contamination issues.”

Ryan has led numerous successful environmental due diligence/remediation projects at WSB for government and private sector clients. He is also an active member of Minnesota Brownfields where he serves on their Program Committee.

“I am passionate about investigation and remediation efforts that enhance our communities and protect our environment. I am excited to bring that passion to my new role at WSB and continue to serve clients and guide our EIR team,” noted Spencer. 

WSB’s EIR services include brownfield and greenfield project development for commercial, industrial, and residential use, phase I and phase II environmental site assessments, grant funding application assistance, and more. You can learn more about WSB’s EIR services at wsbeng.com/expertise/environment/investigation-remediation

Brownfield Redevelopment

Q&A with Bart Fischer | The benefits and risk of brownfield redevelopment

Bart Fischer, Senior Public Administrator, chats with Senior Environmental Scientist Ryan Spencer about the pros and cons of brownfield redevelopment.

Q: When someone hears the term ‘brownfield’ there are a lot of visuals that come to mind, but what is an actual brownfield site?

A: That’s a good question. Brownfields are more encompassing than the traditional rundown or abandoned urban building. A brownfield is a site that has a development history which resulted in the release of contamination, often a dry cleaner, gas station, or an industrial manufacturing site come to mind. However, they can also extend to rural areas such as farmstead dumps, agricultural storage facilities, and junkyards. In general, a brownfield is any site that has documented contamination, or potential contamination, which inhibits redevelopment.

Q: Contamination in redevelopment sounds risky. What are the benefits of brownfield development?

A: There is a certain amount of risk associated with brownfield redevelopment and it varies by a community’s appetite for risk. Often, it’s a great opportunity to revitalize an area of a community that is underutilized. Those factors can strengthen the case for grant funding sources, as well.

Q: Good point.  Funding is key to any project. Are there a lot of funding resources for brownfield development?

A: There are several local and federal funding sources for brownfields. Locally, funding opportunities are driven by an economic development angle and hinges on the project bringing more jobs, affordable housing, and capital investment into the area. Federally, funding sources are generally more environmentally driven and focus on cleaning up the site or a targeted area.

Q: Is brownfield redevelopment a trend right now?

A: I would not say it’s a trend right now. Rather, successful brownfield redevelopment has been occurring for many years. I see this trend continuing as developers and lenders better understand risk, funding sources are available, and undeveloped land is less common. Coming out of the pandemic, it seems that more and more brownfield redevelopment is occurring within suburban communities. There are various factors that go into both greenfield and brownfield redevelopment. It depends on what’s driving the market.

Q: What is attractive about brownfields?

A: They can drive growth and prosperity in a community. When you take an underutilized part of a community and revitalize it, it can spur more development in the area. It can also provide more housing and commercial development that leads to an increased tax base. And it’s also better for the environment – cleaning up soil or groundwater contamination is always an added benefit.

Q: What is the most important thing a community should know and how can they prepare for brownfield development?

A: It all comes back to managing risk. Understanding the site and collecting data is where I always recommend people start. Working with a trusted environmental consultant and performing the proper due diligence (e.g. Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) and Phase II ESA) allows for a deeper understanding of the site and the work that would need to be performed. There are brownfields in every community, and I think there are always benefits and opportunities associated with taking something blighted and turning it into an economic driver.


Bart Fischer has over two decades of experience in public administration. Throughout his tenure, he’s worked in five Minnesota communities as the city or assistant city administrator. Bart joined our firm in 2019 as a senior public administrator and focuses on lending his public service expertise to our clients.

bfischer@wsbeng.com | 651.485.1839

Ryan Spencer has over 13 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry servicing both public and private sector clients. He is proficient in the planning, management, and completion of environmental due diligence, remediation, and brownfield grant writing. 

rspencer@wsbeng.com | 612.723.3644

United States Postal Remediation Efforts

In the wake of the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, the United States Postal Service (USPS) experienced significant damage to two post offices in south Minneapolis.

WSB’s Environmental Remediation and Structures team assisted USPS with their emergency response and environmental and structural needs. Our team worked to identify and analyze any potentially harmful materials that may have been released into the environment that could pose an immediate risk to emergency responders, the public or postal workers.

Riots and protests in the area brought many U.S. Marshalls, Secret Service agents and FBI investigators to the scene. Determining the structural and environmental safety of the buildings was paramount to USPS’s emergency response. The structures were deemed a total loss and the team identified many hazardous materials caused by the fire and destruction of the buildings. USPS is currently in the process of rebuilding one of their facilities and performing environmental clean-up at both sites. Our team will continue to partner with USPS on several other environmental clean-up projects throughout the Midwest.

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:  https://mn.gov/deed/government/financial-assistance/cleanup/contamination.jsp

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:  https://metrocouncil.org/Communities/Services/Livable-Communities-Grants/Tax-Base-Revitalization-Account-(TBRA).aspx

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.