October, 2000
Citizens' Report on Brownfields
The Center for Public Environmental Oversight & the Pacific Studies Center Volume II, Number 3


As we go to press, the U.S. Congress is trying to wind up its legislative session, and it is ex-tremely unlikely that S. 2700, the "Brownfields Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act," will even make it to the Senate floor, despite spon-sorship by a solid majority of Senators. The bill died for two reasons: First, it was held hostage in the larger debate on Superfund Reauthorization. Second, in this election year Congress is having trouble completing even the most essential-that is, Appropriations-legislation.

The consensus behind S. 2700 remains, but one of the four lead sponsors, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) is not running for re-election. His staff has been the key conduit for environmentalist input into the legislation.

Meanwhile, in California, the legislature rejected the controversial S.B. 324, which would have given redevelopment agencies authority to initiate and manage brownfields cleanup. Instead, California has established the $85 million Urban Cleanup Loan Program, which will provide financial assistance to developers, businesses, schools, and local governments. The program, which is still being developed by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, will provide low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to pay for preliminary endangerment assessments and as much as $2.5 million for the cleanup or removal of hazardous materials at redevelopment sites.

by Alan Hipolito

The community speaks for itself. This fundamental promise of environmental justice is too often ignored in brownfields efforts. The affected community is regularly absent from the decision-making table, leaving developers, lenders, regulators and other government officials to decide which properties will be cleaned up and what they will become. In Portland, Oregon, an innovative partnership between the community, the government and the private sector has realized a new model: community-based site selection.

The North/Northeast (N/NE) Portland Brownfields Community Advisory Committee (CAC), a part of the City's EPA-designated Brownfields Showcase project, has worked together since late 1998 to design and implement outreach efforts, to develop site selection criteria, as well to identify potential sites and solicit participation from property owners. The CAC's diverse membership includes educators, community development experts, local business owners, environmental justice advocates, lawyers, planners, environmental health specialists and other community representatives. All live or work in N/NE Portland, the city's most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods and home to a disproportionate number of its brownfields. People of color-African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics-comprise the majority of the CAC. The charge was to design outreach efforts that could involve community residents in brownfields decisions, and select eight sites for publicly funded assessments.

The CAC held three community forums, all in the evening at accessible community locations (a high school, a church, a cultural center). Interested property owners presented information on their sites, including known or suspected contamination and how their redevelopment plans would benefit the community. After a question and answer session, attending community residents voted on which sites to recommend for publicly funded assessments. This is significant and warrants repeating: Community members decided which sites would receive public sector resources for assessment, setting in motion a process that should lead to cleanup and revitalization.

The sites are unique. Many are owned by community residents or nonprofit organizations, and the redevelopments proposed will provide economic, housing or cultural opportunities for low income people and people of color. The Port City Redevelopment Center will clean up and redevelop an old battery factory, turning it into a training and housing facility for the developmentally disabled. The Strongs, local business owners, plan to de-velop mixed income housing and retail space with a cultural center focusing on Portland's African American history. A third site, a former gas station owned by Delta Sigma Theta (an African-American Sorority), will become transitional senior housing with childcare and community facilities, overlook-ing a neighborhood park. Another site, located in the King Neighborhood, will become a small park with environmental education programs. Notably, these are not high profile, waterfront sites. They are smaller, neighborhood-based sites located close to homes, schools and churches; close to where people live, work, play, learn and pray.

This was not an easy process, nor one that moved as quickly as the traditional, exclusive model. We are confident, however, that it is a better process. It is one that enhances the community's capacity to access and impact brownfields decision-making and, therefore, better ensures that community members really benefit from brownfields activities and investments in their neighborhoods. It is also a process that can be improved upon through replication, and the CAC is actively looking for opportunities to share our experiences. We hope to hear from you.

Alan Hipolito is a Community Advisory Committee member He can be reached at alan@teleport.com or 503/287-JUST.

For more information on the CAC, one can also e-mail Warren Fluker, CAC Chair, at wfluker@msn.com.

For more information on the Portland Brownfields Showcase, please e-mail Domonic Boswell, Project Manager: dboswell@ci.portland.or.us.


The Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security recently published Brownfields Redevelopment: Meeting the Challenges of Community Participation. Written by Arlene Wong and Lisa Owens-Viani, the 106-page report provides an excellent overview of the California regulatory framework for Brownfields cleanup, as well as structures, within the state, for planning and implementation of redevelopment projects. The authors propose eight simple recommendations for improving public involvement. Finally, they describe six case studies of Brownfields activity illustrating meaningful, though not always successful, community involvement.

Brownfields Redevelopment: assumes, from the start, that community involvement is essential: "For brownfields redevelopment to truly fulfill its promise of neighborhood revitalization, and to be sustainable, it must offer benefits to the communi-ties surrounding brownfield sites and break the cycle that created brownfields in the first place. Community interests go beyond those represented by local government. Communities are the people whose lives are affected by the decisions made-residents or businesses residing near a site, property owners, and those in the neighborhood who are affected by th cleanup and reuse of the site, whether local or regional in nature. Thus, com-munities must be active participants in the process of identifying and redeveloping brownfields sites to ensure that brownfields redevelopment will ac-tually add to and not detract from a neighborhood's well-being."

The authors find that existing programs general don't do an adequate job, and they identify seven challenges for promoting meaningful community participation:

  • " Convincing the community that involvement is worthwhile and that there is an opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the process;
  • Engaging community members who are disinterested or distrustful;
  • Communicating technical, complex information in meaningful ways;
  • Improving the capacity of those doing outreach;
  • Improving the capacity of community members to respond;
  • Maintaining engagement throughout a long and complicated process."

In response, they offer eight recommendations for improving community involvement in the brownfields redevelopment process. The recommendations, described in detail in chapter 5 of the report, are both sensible and important.

  1. Know the community (and be known).
  2. Seek out a diversity of opinions and stakeholders.
  3. Provide effective and regular communications to keep community actors informed throughout the redevelopment process.
  4. Recognize and address credibility and trust issues.
  5. Integrate brownfields redevelopment with other community priorities. Flexibility in framing the issues will allow for a broader and more integrated response.
  6. Continue to create policy and financial incentives for projects with public benefits and community involvement.
  7. Improve community capacity.
  8. Use facilitators wisely.

The most original and valuable part of the report, however, is the six case studies. Despite the national popularity of Brownfields programs, it's hard to find independent information about how communities have contributed to and derived benefits from brownfields redevelopment. By "independent," I mean reports based upon interviews with diverse local participants, as opposed to claims of community empowerment put forward by those making the decisions, such as regulatory agencies, local governments, or private developers.

The most intriguing cases are those where community activists took the lead. The authors studied three: In Oakland's Fruitvale District, the Unity Council originally a Latino-lead civil rights organization-succeeded by winning the support of public agencies. In North Oakland, the North Oakland Voters Alliance "fought city hall" for many years before achieving success. But in San Diego, the Environmental Health Coalition and neighborhood activists still haven't won the full cooperation of other parties, so their goals remain unmet.

In Fruitvale, the Brownfields project began as a proposal, by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District, to construct a multilevel parking garage on the site of an existing parking lot serving the local BART station. Community residents and local businesses opposed the garage at that location, and instead they proposed the creation of a transit village and community center. Report the authors, "One of the main themes that came out of these initial meetings was the need to revitalize businesses and integrate them into the transit station develop-ment."

The Unity Council and its allies won political support from Oakland's city government and BART officials, and it obtained federal funds from a variety of programs. The project became a brownfields project when the Fruitvale Development Corporation, created by the Unity Council, agreed to buy and remediate nearby property to trade with BART. The contaminated property, to be cleaned to "parking lot standards," would be the site of the parking garage that triggered the whole development. The original parking area is being developed as a transit plaza, with retail stores, non-profit services, and affordable housing.

Brownfields Redevelopment quotes the Unity Council's project manager: "We hope to reconnect the fabric of the neighborhood that was torn apart by construction of the BART line and the freeway. The original design for the huge parking structure would have just created more of a separation. We'll be reconnecting streets along part of the railroad right-of-way, and we're working with BART to make the intermodal station as pedestrian-friendly as possible. The project represents the assertion of community control over its own as-sets. It builds upon two of Fruitvale's greatest assets: accessibility to a wide variety of regional transit opportunities and a strong network or community-based organizations."

Across town in North Oakland, however, residents had to fight for nearly two decades to promote a project that met its needs. It began, long before the concept of brownfields emerged, as a neighborhood effort to save the historic Old Merritt College building. A local activist said, "We wanted to see the building preserved, a senior center, housing, a community park, and maybe some retail and a grocery store." After a series of failed city-sponsored redevelopment efforts, neighbors won historic landmark status for the property. Using litigation and the leverage of federal Block Grant funds, they gradually took control of the redevelopment process. The property was restored and cleaned up-it had lead paint, asbestos, PCBs, and an old leaking underground fuel tank. Nearby Children's Hospital bought the developed portion of the property for a research institute, and the city retained the remainder as a park. The Hospital now leases property for a senior center and planned cultural center, and a non-profit developer is building housing there as well.

In San Diego, residents of Barrio Logan, mobilized by the Environmental Health Coalition, have been working for nearly a decade to close and relocate a polluting plating shop that is located in the midst of a residential area. They want the property cleaned up and developed with housing. In 1999 the city tried to buy the site, but the owner rejected the offer. The community has not yet achieved its objectives, but as the Oakland examples show, dramatic changes in the urban landscape-particularly those initiated by residents who start with few resources and little power, usually take time.

Brownfields Redevelopment also includes three cases where officials initiated community involvement. In Richmond, California, the city led Brownfields Pilot sought public participation early in its process. The authors summarize what the officials heard: "Residents focused primarily on their wish that new developments not worsem the quality of life in their area or repeat the mistakes of the past by causing more cleanup problems. Residents stated clear opposition to any chemical plants being part of future development in their neighborhoods and stressed their interest in attracting business that would provide employment. The community also wanted impact from traffic to be minimized."

The authors also describe the redevelopment planning process for an old mill site in the low Sierras community of North Fork. (This same project was summarized in the California Center for Land Recycling (CCLR) report, "Brownfield Redevelopment: Case Studies," reviewed in the July, 2000 Citizens' Report on Brownfields. There, the work of an outside facilitator seems to have been the key to effective public involvement.

Finally, the authors discuss the cleanup of a neighborhood park in the Southern California community of Covina. This is the only one of the six case studies where actual remediation was the public focus. In Covina, representatives of the responsible party (the Southern California Gas Company) and the regulatory agency (California's Department of Toxic Substance Control), "went door to door in the immediate neighborhood to explain to residents what would be happening in the park." The authors concluded, "By educating residents and attempting to address their concerns as thoroughly as possible-including admitting that there was some level of uncertainty about possible past exposure-the team succeeded in getting the community's support for the remediation project, and in doing so prevented a neighborhood park from becoming an abandoned, cordoned-off, unusable and hazardous site a brownfield.

The authors' findings really aren't all that surprising, but it is still extremely valuable to back up widespread rhetoric, about the importance of community involvement, with concrete examples about how (and when) it works.

A copy of Brownfields Redevelopment: Meeting the Challenges of Community Participation can be ordered from the Pacific Institute for $10.00. Please mail your check, along with the title of the report and your mailing address, to the Pacific In-stitute, Attn: Kristen Camacho, 654 13th Street, Oakland, CA 94612. The full report can also be downloaded in PDF format at http://www.pacinst.org/brownfields.html.