Is Brown the New Green?

Urban Brownfields Make Way for Research-Oriented Mixed-Use Communities

McGraw Hill Construction Continuing Education Center, Nancy B. Solomon, November 2009

Urban brownfields have become increasingly attractive sites for redevelopment; companies seeking to create the next designer drug or the slickest software are transforming the areas into a new kind of urban research park. Woven into the fabric of a mixed-use, walkable community, these research parks stand in sharp contrast to more traditional ones, which are typically sited on sprawling suburban campuses and relatively isolated from the hubbub of daily commerce. Given the important role that research and technology play in today's highly competitive global economy, interest in such urban research parks is bound to increase.

Cleanup costs and liability risks historically associated with brownfield redevelopment have lessened now that the assessment and cleanup tools are largely in place, the regulatory framework has improved, and developers have become more familiar with the process. "Local governments have also become more effective at making these sites shovel-ready," says Christopher De Sousa, associate professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Department of Geography at UW-Milwaukee and co-director of the Brownfields Research Consortium. In many urban districts, public money is typically part of such a redevelopment process.

Although the specifics of each project vary, urban brownfield research parks share certain similarities. The redevelopments, for example, tend to be located near a hospital or university or both (e.g., University Park at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts; South Lake Union between downtown Seattle and Lake Union, Washington; Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston-Salem, North Carolina).

Various developers stress the value of collaborating early on with all stakeholders to get their input and buy-in and downplay the technical challenges of remediating their respective sites. However, no matter what the targeted use, De Sousa believes that the main challenge facing urban brownfield redevelopment in the US "is the ease with which we can still develop on greenfields."

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