PHOTO ESSAY: Brownfields, Green Futures


Brownfields are abandoned or underused properties that often hide environmental contamination. Community leaders in Lansing, Michigan, are using a mix of financial incentives to get some of these sites back on the tax rolls and inject new dollars into the economy. In this photo essay by WKAR's Kevin Lavery, environmental consultants James Harless and Steve Willobee, along with Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, walk us through some of the challenges faced in recovering two Lansing area brownfield sites -- a former service station, and the Marshall Street Armory, a Lansing landmark.

James Harless: When you're doing an environmental assessment of one of these properties, it is both an art and a science. If you have something like a gasoline service station, the tanks are going to be buried, they may be 10 feet down at the bottom; you could have a leak at the bottom. Typically, what we will do if somebody's going to buy a piece of property, whether it's a bank foreclosing or a developer coming in to redevelop a brownfield, we need to understand the environmental impacts that are on the site; number one for the liability protection issue, but number two, to make sure that we know what has to be done to use this site safely in the future. When they abandoned this property, did they empty the gas tanks; the underground storage tanks? You can see on the ground there are some blue hatches where they'll take the cover off. That's where the filling nozzles are for the tanks. We will actually put a probe down in the tank to see if there's liquid in there. If that gasoline is left in there, it can continue to leak. So one of the first things we want to do on a site like this is to empty the tanks.

Eric Schertzing: We've had some conversations with the gentleman that owns the place next door where he's had some plans drawn up for what a redevelopment into apartments and retail might look like. He's doing those preliminary things: what are the costs for this, what's the potential funding for it, what are the funding gaps, and how do you use the economic development tools to try to make a dream a reality?

Steve Willobee: We're looking at the Marshall Street Armory, and what they're looking at doing is redeveloping this structure to become an area headquarters for five Michigan non-profit associations. And look at the top of the really takes on a characteristic of a castle; a solid, fortress-type facility with the artillery crossing at the top of the structure, and with the subtle cuts towards the top of it really gives that castle, fortress-type appearance.

James Harless: We've done some initial sampling out here, we know there's some metals but so far, we haven't found anything that is what I would call the real nightmare on this particular site. And knowing the history of its use, we really don't expect to find something like that. But we're always observant, because we've done a lot of projects, and SME has found surprises on many of them. We do have a little bit of a problem under the pavement. And this is an example of a brownfield redevelopment expense that's not environmental. This parking lot is going to have to be addressed. It's going to have to be updated, it's going to have to be upgraded so that it's useful, and quite frankly, this hole in the pavement looks like it goes about a foot down. It's dangerous.

Steve Willobee: We're looking at things that may be what's referred to as REC's: Recognized Environmental Concerns. And on this property, one of those was this location right here, this concrete pad. But below it is the actual vault where they stored all the coal for the site to heat the building and so forth. So, initially when we came on site, that kind of popped out and we said, well, maybe there's some environmental issues here, and one would assume that. But based on the testing that we did, it was noted that wasn't a strong environmental concern and didn't require environmental action to address. So, those are things that you encounter. Although a developer or a firm such as ourselves, SME has experience on these, you can't make assumptions until you get the data.

James Harless: We're taking a situation where you're not getting taxes now, we're putting something new and healthy on the property, you're generating other business development around it, you're generating revenue streams from the people working there; and then you're just deferring a little bit on capturing the tax benefit from that development; taxes that you wouldn't have anyway. What we at SME do is help developers and help communities put these packages together of some state money, some local money, some federal money to get the best deal for both the community and the developer to help finance these extra costs of brownfield redevelopment.

reWorking Michigan
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