Follow These 5 Steps to Position Vacant Property for Redevelopment

Nearly every city has land parcels that were once bustling and productive, but are now empty, vacant or under-utilized.

During the initial development of most cities, manufacturing and industrial businesses typically located their facilities in prime locations near railroads, rivers, highways and other bustling areas. Those manufacturers created jobs and a healthy tax base. Over time, industries abandoned or sold those facilities. Many of those properties may have contaminated soils and/or groundwater due to past practices. These sites are commonly on prime real estate within your communities and are ideal for redevelopment. The contaminated or perceived contaminated lands are called brownfields. In addition to being eyesores and potentially dangerous to health and environment, they can also lower surrounding property value.

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...most brownfields can be mitigated cost effectively, efficiently and quickly.
Al Sunderman

Fast forward to today. While there is still a demand for manufacturing and industry, communities need to consider new types of businesses and uses for these vacant land parcels. Priority number one is preparing the site for development, which may involve brownfield clean-up. The good news is you have clean-up options and there are resources to help your city fund them.

“We understand that brownfields carry a perception of high remediation costs and liabilities associated with soil and/or groundwater contamination,” SEH environmental lead Al Sunderman says. “However, with federal and state funding available and innovative approaches to clean-up, most brownfields can be mitigated cost effectively, efficiently and quickly. The benefits are starting to outweigh the costs.”

Following these five steps will put you and a potential developer in a better position to start redevelopment on a brownfield site:

1. Determine the good, bad and potentially ugly.

First, you’ll need to understand what it will take to redevelop the property. A preliminary environmental assessment will help you understand the depth and breadth of the problem. Here is where brownfield and greenfield (a development location with no limitations from previous use) come into play. You might learn the site is not contaminated, and that creates instant ease of mind with a developer. In Andover, Minnesota, SEH transformed a former automobile scrapyard, a 100-acre brownfield site into a successful redevelopment for commercial, light industrial, residential and retail use. The site is now fully developed.

A former brownfield site in Andover, Minnesota was redeveloped for commercial, light industrial, residential and retail use. 

2. Know the law and liability.

If your site is contaminated, you fortunately have options. There are laws at the federal and state level to minimize potential risks to you and the developer. At the federal level is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and at the state level in Minnesota are the Petroleum Brownfields and Voluntary Investigation and Cleanup (VIC) programs which encourage private sector involvement in the remediation. These laws and programs can have a major role in the process and pave the way to a successful remediation of the land.


3. Match the site challenges to specific programs.

Each site has its unique challenges. Different financial and incentive programs may be useful to solve specific challenges. For example, tax credits may be a worthwhile incentive. Your clean-up costs could be fully tax-deductible. There may be alternative clean-up standards offering more flexibility. There could also be restrictions or conditions put on the site that may complicate your development. Knowing exactly what you are working with and having a land use plan can allow you to take successful steps along the way. In Portage, Indiana, the City redeveloped a former brownfield site creating better access to Lake Michigan for the community.

A redeveloped brownfield site in Portage, Indiana, gave the community better access to enjoy Lake Michigan.

4. Connect with people who know the financial programs inside and out.

There are a multitude of federal, state and local funding programs available to clean up brownfields. The tricky part is understanding which funding programs can leverage each other. For example, one program may require a match and a different funding program could potentially be used as that donation’s match. This then limits the city's financial responsibility.


5. Brainstorm on potential site uses.

Collaborate with economic development officials and use market research to understand the options you have. While the previous site may have been the home of a manufacturing plant or had similar use, a remediated location will have many options and possibilities for new types of business and industries to grow. This will provide you and your community with a larger landscape of developers and companies who may be interested in redeveloping the site.

Unconventional methods for funding brownfield redevelopment
There are a number of state and federal funding options to help redevelop brownfields.
Below are a few creative funding options that often go overlooked.



Piggybacking occurs when a brownfield project can be combined with a larger non-brownfield project, thereby allowing developers or city officials to utilize funding that's not brownfield specific.

Community Development Block Grant (CDBG)

HUD’s Community Development Block Grant offers funds directly to entitlement cities and counties to revitalize distressed communities.

Related Content: 16 Inspiring Examples of Communities Capitalizing on CDBG Funding

Development swap

A developer can be assessed lower taxes or receive special development considerations in exchange for investing in a brownfield.

Land assembly

Land assembly consists of grouping parcels of land together to minimize the percentage of remediation costs for a developer and/or make a project more feasible. If a local government is able to add other parcels of land together so that the percentage of the total cost dedicated to remediation is smaller, developers may be prone to proceed with a project.

Bringing it all together

Many cities can put vacant land back on the tax rolls or improve underutilized sites by understanding the challenges of their sites, matching the environmental needs of the site to government programs, and looking for innovative ways to finance and attract a broader range of interested developers. Ultimately, the remediation and redevelopment of brownfield sites and vacant locations can add value to local real estate, create jobs and expand your community’s tax base.

“The proper coordination of local, state and federal governments, private parties and citizens can lead to a successful brownfield redevelopment project,” Sunderman says. “But, these stakeholders must work together to reach a common redevelopment goal for the use of brownfields and how to approach the funding concerns. And when they do, there’s really a win/win for all.”

About the Expert

Al Sunderman

Al Sunderman is senior scientist and has been doing environmental consulting for over 30 years. He is committed to helping clients make the best use of their opportunities. Contact Al

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