“Contamination is part of everyday conversation for real estate developers,” explained Bonnie Prior, winner of the 2013 Brownfielder of the Year Award and past president of the Canadian Brownfields Network (CBN). Consequently, brownfield remediation and redevelopment is now a key part of urban planning, not only for sustainability, but also to create vibrant and healthy neighbourhoods.
Brownfields are lands that may be contaminated because of past industrial use. They can range in size from large factory sites to small gas stations, are either vacant or underused and have great potential for redevelopment. However, to ensure the health and safety of the environment and next users of the site, brownfields must undergo an environmental assessment and remediation before construction begins. This process is costly to developers who are liable for the offsite impacts of using the land, meaning they tend to invest only in brownfield sites in a strong market – most often in large cities.
But what should happen in smaller cities that lack the economic driver for private brownfield redevelopment? Should municipalities still look to develop their brownfields? The 2013 Canadian Brownfields Conference, held in Toronto by the Canadian Urbanism Institute and the CBN, which I had the pleasure of attending, addressed these questions.
Why Small Cities Should Look to Develop Brownfields
By redeveloping brownfield sites, the scars of unused land in the city fabric are restored by new life in the city – new jobs and industry, new mixed-use neighbourhoods, or new activities. Cities will consequently benefit financially through increased tax revenues and lower infrastructure costs. Finally, remediation cleans the soil, reducing the chance of contaminants spreading to adjacent land or into the groundwater.
Such sustainable development is equally important in small cities as in larger cities, but attracting the private investment can be much more of a challenge for smaller cities. Smaller cities, like St. Catharines, Ontario, know they cannot rely on high land value and other economic drivers for development, as is the case for nearby Toronto.
Here are three strategies small Canadian cities are using to redevelop their brownfields:
- Municipal investments;
- Clear and consistent provincial standards and protocols; and
- Federal grants and loans.
1. Municipal investments that incentivize both new projects on brownfield sites and investment in existing properties to create a city that is more attractive to developers.
At the conference, Erin O’Hoski, the Corporate Planning Officer for the City of St. Catharines, gave an excellent presentation about what actions her city, with a population of only 131,000, is taking to encourage new development. St. Catharines has “hit city boundaries and has almost no room to expand,” O’Hoski made clear; its only option is to remediate brownfield sites. However, this constraint makes it difficult to attract developers to an area that has a lower return on investment than cities of similar size that have undeveloped or uncontaminated sites.
“We are focusing on the livability and vibrancy of St. Catharines,” O’Hoski said, “in order to promote new private investment and protect their previous community investments.”
To accomplish this, St. Catharines has grants available for current property owners to convert underused office and residential space into new units for the purpose of intensification, as well as for façade improvements in the urban centre. These municipal investments aim to advance the urban growth goals and increase interest in St. Catharines among developers.
Additionally, St. Catharines has created a scorecard for development proposals that aligns with its community improvement plans. As O’Hoski stated, the score determines the “bang for the buck of each city dollar spent” in tax increment based incentives for the development. A project gets up to 45 of 100 points just for remediating a brownfield site. The rest of the points are allocated based on project location (35 points), financial impact (10 points), and other value added or innovation (10 points).
2. Clear and consistent provincial standards and protocols decrease the cost and time investment required by both the city and the developer.
The consensus from the industry panel during the CBN Plenary Workshop was the need to standardize and streamline the multi-year approval process to redevelop brownfields. A clear and consistent regulatory process would reduce the time and money needed, making investment more enticing, especially in smaller cities with less valuable sites.
The provinces have been trying to make their protocols clearer and more predictable for developers. Atlantic Risk Based Corrective Action, for example, is a toolkit that provides Atlantic Canada with specific remediation standards, making the process more consistent and cost effective for developers who want to build in any of the four provinces.
Nevertheless, the industry is still interested in more. “How does the rate of brownfield redevelopment compare between big and small cities? Between smaller cities across all provinces?” proposed Grant Walsom of XCG Consulting. These two comparisons would elucidate how well each province’s policies are working.
3. Federal grants and loans are available to municipalities for sustainable development, including all stages of brownfield remediation
Municipalities do not need to rely only on tax increment financing and other self-created grants. The Green Municipal Fund (GMF), established by the Canadian government, is eager to provide loans and grants to municipal governments or municipally owned corporations working independently or in partnership with the private-sector. From brownfield site assessments in Malartic, Quebec to the Dockside Green development in Victoria, BC, the GMF is supporting sustainable and environmental projects across Canada.
Isaël Poirier, Regional Advisor of the GMF, made this clear when he concluded by saying, “Do you have a brownfield project? We have money!”
Ultimately, in Canada, all three levels of government have a role in brownfield remediation, and fortunately, they are interested in the development of these lands to improve the vitality of our cities.
Is brownfield development happening in your city on a large or small scale? What kind of financing methods or incentives have helped make it happen?
Credits: Images by Lindsay Vanstone. Data linked to sources.