What's a brownfield?

This abandoned factory may still be standing because it's considered a brownfield.

­If you've ever passed by a deserted warehouse or old, abandoned gas station and wondered why the property has been left to rot, the reason might be because the property is a brownfield.

Brownfields are located in cities and towns in every state across the United States. They're often the result of out-of-business or abandoned commercial enterprises like railroad depots, dry-cleaning shops or gas stations -- places where chemicals were present in significant amounts over time.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines brownfields as "any land in the United States that is abandoned, idled or under used because redevelopment and/or expansion is complicated by environmental contamination that is either real or perceived."

­An example is the River District in Portland, Ore. About 20 years ago, this 70-acre industrial area was redeveloped into a thriving place with residences and commercial space. But this kind of large-scale accomplishment doesn't come easy. Often, owners abandon their property or potential buyers are wary to invest because they're afraid of being held liable if contamination is confirmed. While brownfields aren't seriously hazardous to our health or environment, they pose an economic or social threat because they stifle local economies by preventing development, according to the EPA.

Of the 450,000 brownfields in the United States, many have been cleaned up and developed. While there isn't a state known to have the most brownfields, there are areas of the country that historically have had heavy industrial land uses -- like the Rust Belt in the Northeast and the Industrial Corridor in the Midwest -- which makes them likely to have higher numbers of brownfields.

­Whether they're actually contaminated or thought to be contaminated, these rundown properties have unique challenges and lots of potential. Turn to the next page to learn why redeveloping an abandoned factory with sub-surface pollution could be less expensive and more socially responsible than building on scenic, untouched acreage.



Pros and Cons to Developing a Brownfield


Cleaning up and reinvesting in brownfields combines environmental benefits with economic development and social improvement. Planners, developers and local stakeholders come together to improve their communities by turning these blighted properties into sustainable reuses. Brownfields are located in urban, suburban or rural areas; they help clean up cities, grow suburbs and alleviate pressure to develop green spaces.


Developing untouched, pristine land usually requires building new infrastructure, which can be expensive. But brownfield developers often save money because of existing infrastructure like water and sewer lines, electricity, roads and accessibility to public transportation.

Besides environmental benefits, redeveloping these derelict locations can have social and economic perks. Dilapidated industrial sites can transform into thriving office buildings, apartments, luxury mixed-use facilities, shopping centers, public parks and more. Brownfield redevelopment can breathe new life into neighborhoods and spur the transformation of entire cities by attracting people into a community core for work or play. Such efforts increase local tax bases and facilitate job growth, according to the EPA.

However, brownfields can be complicated and costly to resuscitate after years of inactivity and neg­lect.

­A brownfield is real property, which means it can include much more than just land, such as buildings, crops or mineral rights. Redeveloping, expanding or reusing a brownfield includes the land and everything attached to it. Consequently, environmental remediation is often costly, and financing can be difficult to acquire, says Robert Duncan, associate deputy assistant secretary for economic development with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Plus, the permit process is notoriously slow.

Additionally, it's common for brownfields to be located in places where there are no other developable and/or attractive areas, according to HUD. The idea is that if the site is an eyesore or has no desirable locations nearby for people to frequent, people won't come. And if people don't come, the revitalized property may not be able to sustain itself.

­Want to find out about real-world success stories? Flip the page to read about some stand-out brownfield projects that went from wasteland to wow.

Governmental Brownfields Programs and Incentives


Laws pertaining to brownfield development vary by state. But all state governments and the EPA work together to see that brownefields are cleaned up to standard. Many states have voluntary cleanup programs that encourage site owners to collaborate with the state to execute the cleanup.


­­Many local and state laws offer tax incentives for brownfield development, including Tax Increment Financing (TIF). When a brownfield is redeveloped, the value of surrounding real estate often increases, and new support businesses follow. The result is increased tax revenues for the area, the "tax increment." TIF is meant to fund improvements in distressed or underdeveloped areas where development would not otherwise occur.

But brownfield legislation doesn't stop at the state level. Through the Federal Brownfields Tax Incentive, taxpayers can fully deduct the cost of environmental cleanup at eligible properties in the year the costs were incurred.

Also, congress passed brownfields law, which is known as the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act. The law addresses owners' and investors' concerns about incurring liability if contamination is found. It outlines how to protect oneself from possible liability. Because of the Act, innocent people are better protected from liability and many sites are being cleaned up and put to good use.

The EPA and HUD both have governmental programs for bolstering brownfield revitalization.

The EPA Brownfields Program started in 1995. It provides funding to encourage the assessment and cleanup of brownfields, supports states and tribes with programs to address contaminated sites and provides technical support for cleaning up sites. It also provides cleanup jobs and brownfields research.

A redevelopment upswing in Dallas, Texas, exemplifies what the EPA Brownfield Program can do. This expansion was triggered by an EPA brownfields grant , and since then, public and private funding exceeding $550 million has been used to cleanup and repurpose desolate areas around the city. Now, residents get a new recreation center, housing, shopping and an environmental training and technology center, which will usher in more than 1,000 new jobs.

­Another major governmental program that bolsters brownfield development is the Brownfields Economic Development Initiative (BEDI), a grant program administered by HUD to stimulate and promote economic and community development.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links


  • Duncan, Robert. Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development with HUD. Personal interview. Feb. 11, 2009.
  • Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Program. http://www.epa.gov/brownfields/applicat.htm
  • Environmental Protection Agency Cleanups in My Community database. http://iaspub.epa.gov/Cleanups
  • Environmental Protection Agency's Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Information System. www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/cursites
  • Environmental Protection Agency Federal Brownfields Tax Incentive. http://www.epa.gov/brownfields/bftaxinc.htm
  • Gans, Debora and Weisz, Claire. "Extreme Sites: The 'Greening' of Brownfield." Wiley-Academy. 2004.
  • Petteway, Tisha. EPA Press Officer. Personal correspondence. Feb. 17, 2009 and Feb. 19, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Brian. HUD. Personal correspondence. Feb. 11, 2009.