Chances are you've seen a Brownfield before, but haven't recognized it by that name. "Brownfield" is the technical name for an underused or abandoned industrial or commercial property. Brownfields can range from old factories to vacant warehouses; from defunct gas stations to former dry cleaning establishments.
Many Brownfields are contaminated with potentially dangerous waste. Solvents and waste oil, for example, might be found at the site of an old automotive repair shop; the chemical perchloroethylene could be identified at a site previously occupied by a dry cleaner.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Despite the way they look, not all Brownfields are actually contaminated. (Unfortunately, even those properties that are not truly contaminated are widely believed to be.)
The General Accounting Office has estimated that there are over 450,000 Brownfield properties in the United States. And, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency, California is home to almost 90,000 them.
In the greater Los Angeles region, the Brownfield problem is growing. Over the last several decades, the area's industrial and manufacturing base has declined, and many urban areas are now teaming with idle or underutilized properties.
Developers (and the investors who finance their projects) are hesitant to redevelop these sites. Contamination—whether real or perceived—adds tremendous uncertainty to these projects. Individuals associated with Brownfield redevelopment often fear environmental liability. Also, contaminated properties may be vulnerable to lengthy clean-up, which can add significantly to the cost of the project and cause substantial construction delays.
Instead, developers gravitate toward sites that have never before been used, or "greenfields", creating serious environmental problems. Greenfield development destroys otherwise pristine properties and leads to the construction of redundant infrastructure, like roads, sewers, schools, and homes.
Brownfields can—and should—be redeveloped. These properties can be utilized for a wide variety of purposes. They have, for example, been successfully turned into retail sites, office parks, schools, parks, and housing developments.
Brownfield redevelopment serves several important purposes:
- Clean-up of contaminated sites can minimize or eliminate exposure to potentially dangerous contaminants and improve the safety of the environment.
- Recycling Brownfields can prevent urban sprawl and protect open spaces from development.
- Reusing unused or underutilized properties for residential, commercial and public purposes can help revitalize communities.
- By making use of existing infrastructure, redevelopment can save taxpayer dollars.
Agencies at the federal, state and local level are currently actively involved in promoting these types of redevelopment activities.
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County of Los Angeles Public Health
Toxicology & Environmental Assessment Branch