The City of Bakersfield is taking steps to help clean up what are often called “brownfield” properties.
A report titled “Unlocking Brownfields,” by the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals, noted: “Virtually every community in America is plagued by idle properties that lay abandoned for years due to fear of environmental contamination, unknown cleanup costs and potential legal liability issues. It is estimated that there could be as many as 1 million of these so-called ‘brownfield’ properties nationwide. Brownfields cause blight to neighborhoods, inhibit economic development, threaten public health and the environment and encourage urban sprawl.”
You may be wondering: What, exactly, is a brownfield?
The definition is quite loose, but essentially it’s a “dirty” site. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, brownfield is a “property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which could be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.” The definition is found in Public Law 107-118 (H.R. 2869), the "Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act", signed into law Jan. 11, 2002.
Essentially, if contaminants were involved in a site’s history of uses, such as an automotive repair shop, gas station, dry cleaners or chemical manufacturing plant, and there is a chance these contaminants have not been properly removed, it is identified as a brownfield.
These are often sites that developers tend to avoid because of the unknown costs of cleanup, expenses that typically fall to the developer.
As the EPA explains, cleaning up and redeveloping these properties removes contaminants from our environment, which improves air and water quality, reduces blight and takes development pressure off agricultural land, green spaces and the like.
Without more assistance and incentives, many properties will continue to sit idle in the center of our city and suffer from further economic disinvestment. And it’s a sad reality because many of these properties are, in many ways, already in prime central locations with existing infrastructure such as electricity, water, streets and sidewalks; they are ripe for revitalization.
Many developers explain that their focused approach to suburban projects comes down to the numbers. It is often simply cheaper and easier to develop land on the outskirts of town than to bother with infill. There’s the hassle of finding the right-sized site for the intended use. New urban projects often involve added demolition of existing structures. There are considerations involving space for on-site parking. Then there’s the big elephant in the room: Have existing uses contaminated the site? Urban infill involves many risky assessments and could require costly cleanup, especially the dreaded Phase II Environmental Site Assessment (ESA).
There are ways that the City of Bakersfield eases the burden on infill developers, such as with reduced parking requirements in the central district area, but often these policies are not enough. Local developers need to possess a passion and creative knack for infill to make new downtown projects pencil. Many traditional developers, used to the ease and reliability of suburban projects, do not wish to make that extra effort.
The City of Bakersfield wants to provide even more financial incentive for business owners and developers to consider developing on brownfield sites, especially those downtown. Downtown Bakersfield may see more infill development activity through the city’s efforts to identify, clean up and re-engage contaminated sites that have been neglected for decades.
“The City has always focused redevelopment efforts on downtown,” explained Cecelia Griego, principal planner in the Economic Development Department for the City of Bakersfield. Through a program targeted at cleaning up infill properties, city officials hope to make this even more of a reality.
In 2017, the city was awarded a federal grant of $300,000 to conduct an inventory of potential brownfields and assess sites to determine the level of contamination by petroleum or other hazardous substances. The city hired an environmental consulting team led by Stantec Consulting Services to apply for and implement the grant. The grant will fund ESAs and other cleanup/reuse planning activities at eligible publicly and privately-owned brownfield sites over a three-year period (through September 2020).
Additionally, the proposed budget under Measure N, which was passed late last year, includes $1.2 million in one-time economic development capital investment that could target redevelopment on potential brownfield sites.
Over six months, Stantec created an inventory of brownfield sites in Bakersfield, scoring sites for their potential to contain contaminants based on various conditions, including commercial or industrial zoning, occupancy status, land value-to-improvement value ratio and a historical use known to contain contaminants. In addition to downtown, the inventory lists sites all over the city, including properties around the Bakersfield Air Park and along the Highway 58 industrial corridor. This inventory is a starting point and helps the city determine where to focus program funds.
A Brownfield Advisory Committee for the city has identified 25 potential sites to concentrate outreach efforts for use of program funds.
Griego said the city is currently reaching out to property owners, business owners, developers and community organizations to find willing participants in the program. These program funds would complete Phase I and II ESAs, hazardous building materials surveys, cleanup action plans and a variety of site-specific reuse planning activities in support of property sale or redevelopment.
“This program will help property owners, business owners, developers and investors take that first step in redeveloping their property by clearing up unknowns,” Griego explained.
This really bridges the gap for developers downtown. If there is contamination that needs to be addressed, this program will take those initial steps with site assessments and a clean-up strategy to help make it development-ready.
There are tremendous opportunities for community progress and economic growth at our local brownfields. I am excited to see how the city’s brownfields program changes our downtown landscape for the better.