Beneficial Reuse: Giving Underutilized Land a New Lease on Life

July 6, 2018


While a town’s idle or underutilized properties can be an eyesore and a liability, revitalization of these properties can be an impetus for job creation, new business, and community engagement.

Beneficial reuse of underutilized properties seeks to bring land to its fullest potential. As defined by the Department of Legacy Management, beneficial reuse seeks to “‘sustainably manage and optimize the use of land and assets.’” Sustainability is both an important aspect and a goal of responsible land management. But optimization is the key to reuse: often, multiple uses may exist for a site that currently accomplishes just one. Stacking property functions, or essentially multi-tasking the site, means that more can be done with less land.

Accomplishing more with one property can reduce the need for new development, meaning that reusing brownfield sites or underutilized properties helps to preserve greenfields. Greenfields are lands that have not yet been developed and are often home to wildlife or agricultural activities. The EPA concluded that, on average, as much as 4.5 acres of greenfield are saved from development for every one acre of brownfield redevelopment, a substantial amount of preservation. But aside from saving new land from development, there are other important reasons to reuse land.

“Location, location, location” may sound familiar to those working in traditional real estate development, and siting for redevelopment is no different. When sites are redeveloped, close proximity to existing infrastructure and local resources (think materials and labor) can save on transportation costs and reduce emissions. Additionally, proximity to existing utility distribution lines with available capacity is an essential consideration if energy is going to be generated on the site. Otherwise, costs to input new electrical connections can be steep.

Another financial incentive to reuse land is the return on the money invested in environmentally impacted sites. In 2016, every EPA dollar invested in the EPA’s Brownfields Grant Program to remediate brownfield sites leveraged nearly $17– a return of almost 1700%. Studies of Wisconsin’s brownfields programs showed returns of over $27 for each dollar of state funds invested in brownfields.

Take a look at the above animation to see a hypothetical town undergoing redevelopment projects to better optimize each space. Think of it as a “spot the difference” brain teaser. Then, use the tabs below to navigate through the images. We’ll break down each stage of the progress to explain the developments that have taken place in the highlighted areas of the town. If you’re counting the differences, this is your answer key.

TerraTown: Before

Illustrated here is a typical view you might see from an airplane window. This small, rural area boasts farmland, greenhouses, a mining operation, a former gas station, commercial buildings, a landfill, a vacant industrial plant, an oil refinery complex, and a water treatment facility. Imagine it as the commercial, industrial, and farming district of a typical Midwestern town. We’ll call it TerraTown.

It’s likely that TerraTown has plenty of energy production to meet demand. It’s important to note, though, that the town may have both high emissions and high energy costs compared to what would be possible with sustainable energy sources.

Notice the empty land on the right-hand side of the town, just below the bright green farmland. This land has been set aside to separate the refinery and its fuel storage tanks and processing facilities from the road and neighboring properties across the street. The area is mostly unused buffer land, containing only a small parking area and outbuilding near the right. Excess material storage sits next to parked trucks, perhaps overflow from the refinery.

Refinery

The site, now highlighted, looks quite a bit different after redevelopment. Because the buffer land was environmentally unimpacted, redevelopment on the site proceeded quickly. The parking area has been relocated, and two solar arrays now reside on the property. This site still serves its original intended purpose as buffer land for the refinery, but now with an additional use: generating renewable energy for TerraTown. Importantly, this source of renewable energy is clean, helping to offset emissions from non-renewable sources. Due to federal and state incentives, TerraTown was a good candidate for a solar project due to its access to nearby electric distribution lines. Additionally, the electricity may be offered at a lower-than-market price.

Further, perhaps the ground under the solar arrays has been vegetated with a wildflower and natural grasses seed mix instead of turfgrass or gravel, allowing bees and other pollinators to share the land. Restoring the natural habitat that bees, birds, and insects need to thrive means more pollination and better crop yields for nearby farms, as well as another point of pride for the community. In addition, implementing natural plants eliminates the need for vegetative maintenance, such as mowing.

Between the solar arrays, a cogeneration plant has been constructed. Cogeneration, or combined heat and power (CHP), utilizes clean natural gas to efficiently generate electricity and heat, and both products can be used in the nearby refinery processes. Thus, heat produced during electricity generation that is normally wasted is instead put to productive use.

Industrial Plant

Recall the vacant industrial plant from before redevelopment. Now, we see that this property has been attractively renovated. Prior to its status as a brownfield site, it was a chemical operation plant that left behind soil and groundwater contamination. TerraTown accessed the EPA’s Brownfields Program to investigate the contamination, and the property’s new owner subsequently carried out minor remediation to clean up the site.

The main building features an expansion and plenty of new windows. Perhaps it will be intended as office space, or even as a new medical center or research lab. Initial findings from the EPA suggest that redevelopment of brownfield sites can also lead to a reduction in crime, suggesting that break-ins or vandalism may now be less of a problem for this part of TerraTown.

On the top-left end of the highlighted property, the existing buffer land was preserved and enhanced. The industrial storage units have been removed, and additional vegetation has been planted. This habitation plan may be in line with the TerraTown Forest Preserve’s goals of expanding habitats for local and diminished wildlife. The original site’s concrete parking area has since been downsized and repaved, and a small building has been added near the left end of the property. Additionally, the deteriorating buildings near the bottom of the property have both been renovated.

The rest of the right end of the property has been allocated for clean energy, with two new solar arrays and another cogeneration plant. In addition to creating electricity, the cogen plant may also provide heating and cooling for the nearby buildings. Look closely at the solar panels – they also function as covered parking for employees’ cars.

Industrial Plant

Has anything changed at this site? Look closer. The water treatment facility itself was an important and needed facility for the town, and it looked to be rather new and in good working order. However, its expanse of flat roofing has been transformed. The renovation boasts both a green roof and solar arrays to put the open roof space to valuable use. With a green roof, utility costs for the treatment facility are lowered and the life of its heating and cooling systems is extended, in addition to environmental benefits such as improved air quality and stormwater management. Meanwhile, the solar arrays work to reduce power costs and offset emissions from the facility.

Landfill

The landfill from the original image was in the process of being closed, and it has now been transformed into a group of solar arrays. Even after the landfill was capped, there was ongoing monitoring and maintenance required on the property. Without any beneficial uses for the site, it simply cost the town without generating profit or offsetting any costs. Because of the environmental challenges of the site, restrictions on the landfill likely prevented many potential redevelopments.

Working around the use restrictions, and without penetrating the cap on the landfill, solar arrays have been added to the surface of the large space. A small building has also been constructed near the bottom end of the site. This methane recapture facility cleans up the landfill gas and converts it into clean, compressed natural gas that can be used to power natural gas vehicles owned by the town.

The low cost of leasing the landfill combined with its large, mostly flat surface area, as well its specific use restrictions, all point to solar as the best reuse of this property.

Commercial Area

Extensive renovations have taken place in TerraTown’s commercial area. At the bottom of the property, original buildings that were still in working order have been preserved. Just behind them, the previously unused land has been remodeled into a recreational space. Sports playing fields fill most of the area, while a walking park with a playground have been added on the right. A small building next to the pond provides amenities for townspeople using the park, such as a café and perhaps even paddle-boat rentals. Parking space has been more effectively allocated with a parking strip down the middle of the site. This new parking provides separation between the recreational park and the renovated buildings beyond.

To the upper left, the previously vacant gas station has been replaced with two industrial buildings. Solar arrays cover both roofs. The left-most building also has a green roof installed on a lower section of the building. The main building, perhaps a business, has had similar additions to its roofs, and solar panels have again been used to provide covered parking for employees. Finally, a large pond has been added near the parking area. With plenty of space already allocated to solar energy and green roofs, reserving this space for habitat regeneration was a balanced decision. In addition, creating natural green space provides a perk for employees to enjoy.

Mining Operation

The mining operation near the top left of the town has also been redeveloped into a large habitat renewal area. This process, called mitigation banking, creates or restores a wetland or other natural area to offset habitat that has been lost at nearby developments. The new space features a walking and biking path around the pond as well as a pier, opening the area to recreational use by TerraTown residents or employees of the nearby businesses.

Greenhouses

The previously run-down greenhouses at the farm have been restored to good working order. A building to house a reciprocating engine has been constructed to provide heat and power, likely necessitated by the increased productivity of the greenhouses. Behind the greenhouses, the relatively small parcel of adjacent land has been transformed into solar arrays.

Substation

This highlighted site was previously home to an electrical substation. Before, a garage and a small building may have functioned as storage and an office for the power plant. In close coordination with the local electric utility, a battery storage system in combination with a natural gas-fired facility have now been added to the site to stabilize the local electric grid. When energy production exceeds consumption, energy is stored and then returned to the grid when it is needed again.

Farmland

TerraTown’s last project was to bring the existing farmland to its full potential. The front-most part of the farmland has been left untouched, but the previously underutilized area underneath the transmission lines has been converted to a wildlife refuge, and wind turbines have been added to the larger piece of farmland beyond. The large footprint of this property makes it suitable for installing the turbines to harness another form of clean, renewable energy.

TerraTown: After

TerraTown is vibrant and thriving. Newly renovated buildings are home to new businesses and industries, bringing more workers to the area. Along with the wind turbines, the many solar arrays generate a significant portionof TerraTown’s electricity, allowing lower energy costs for the local businesses and industries, as well as sources of clean energy.

With all of these improvements and additions, allocation of natural areas has remained top of mind. Trees and other vegetation have been added to each property, and new wetlands create a home for wildlife. The recreational parks now bring nearby families to this part of town for a nature walk, a bike ride, or even a paddle in the pond. The playing fields draw in local youth for soccer games and other weekend activities. Importantly, the growth in pedestrian use of these locations may increase revenue for nearby businesses. And the local economy is likely seeing a boost due to job openings at the revitalized properties, including new technician positions to monitor the solar arrays and wind turbines and new maintenance positions to manage the added vegetation and habitats. This is in addition to the many construction jobs that opened during the revitalization process.

Considerations of beneficial reuse encompass not only putting idle land to reuse, but also putting active land to additional use. Beneficial reuse protects the environment and revitalizes the community, leading to a town that truly thrives.

For a free consultation on how your brownfield or underutilized property could be put to beneficial reuse, please call (858) 263-2889 or contact us through our website form.


What beneficial reuse topics are you interested in hearing more about?