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Brownfields and bikeways: making a clean start.

Have you ever thought of locating a bikeway on a hazardous waste site? There are many legitimate concerns: What is the cost of cleanup? What are the legal risks of becoming the owner of the property? Can we obtain the cooperation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory bodies? What are the benefits, if any, of choosing this location?

Due to a recent change of policy by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), it is not only possible, but may be desirable, to use such a site for a transportation project. This article is about the brownfields concept and a specific project that is implementing this concept.


The term "brownfields" describes abandoned, idled, or under-used commercial, industrial, or institutional properties, where investment for redevelopment or reuse is discouraged by the presence of light to moderate contamination from hazardous substances. The president's Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative, administered by EPA, provides assistance and incentives to states, local communities, and the private sector for the assessment, cleanup, and economic reuse of these properties.

On March 4, 1998, FHWA issued a new policy that supports the Brownfields Initiative by encouraging participation in transportation projects that include the use and redevelopment of contaminated sites, when appropriate. This replaces the 1988 "Interim Guidance" that emphasized that one of the first considerations in planning and project development is to avoid all contaminated properties.

Some concerns were expressed that the new policy might violate the requirements for consideration of alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However, the new policy only allows the possibility of using contaminated sites; it does not require their use in any particular project. As always, location alternatives must be studied, and the costs and benefits relating to all social, economic, and environmental impacts must be evaluated.

Under the brownfields concept, we consider whether the cost of cleaning up the contamination (referred to as "remediation") is outweighed by the benefits to the public of having the site available for a lucrative reuse. For example, in a scenario in which a factory contaminated the soil or groundwater with hazardous waste for a number of years before its closing and, as the principal employer in the area, its closing caused the community to deteriorate, the ideal solution would be to redevelop the property for a use that will revitalize the area's economy and quality of life.

However, because potential investors are not likely to take on the liability of owning a hazardous waste site and because the value of the property may be less than the cost of remediation, a partnership among the public and private sectors is needed to support investment; provide technical assistance; guide the investors through the federal, state, and local regulatory processes; and share the risks. The community must also be an active partner to rebuild the neighborhood for the benefit of all.

"Transportation can be key in the redevelopment of brownfields," said Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater in his April 22, 1998, policy announcement.

Not only are transportation facilities among the likely possibilities for the reuse of brownfields, but good transportation access will be needed when the brownfields have been redeveloped. Also, brownfields redevelopment may allow the use of existing infrastructure and services, thus eliminating the need for costly additional public investment. Moreover, partnerships among transportation, environmental, and economic development agencies of federal, state, and local governments can leverage additional funding and resources for brownfields redevelopment.

Brownfields Showcase Communities

In May 1997, Vice President Al Gore announced a Brownfields National Partnership to coordinate the resources of more than 15 federal agencies to address cleanup and reuse issues. This multiagency partnership includes the departments of Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation, as well as EPA.

The partners have pledged support to 16 "Brownfields Showcase Communities" by providing special technical, financial, and other assistance to the selected communities. These communities demonstrate the benefits of focused, coordinated attention on brownfields. According to EPA, the Brownfields Showcase Communities program is the centerpiece of the federal government's Brownfields Initiative, and the project provides a model for future cooperative efforts to address other environmental and economic issues. The primary goal of this project is to "promote environmental protection and restoration, economic redevelopment, job creation, community revitalization, and public health protection through the assessment, cleanup, and sustainable use of brownfields."

The selected communities benefit by gaining national visibility and recognition for their innovative and successful brown fields efforts. Also, a federal employee is assigned to each community to assist with the coordination of technical and financial support from the participating federal agencies.

Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project

The Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project, a partnership between the state of Rhode Island and the city of Providence, is one of the 16 Brownfields Showcase Communities projects. The project area had already been selected as a state and federal brownfields pilot, a state enterprise zone, and a federal enterprise community. In addition, the Blackstone and Woonasquatucket rivers were recently designated by President Clinton as American heritage rivers.

In 1994, the Greenway Project was proposed by The Providence Plan, a non-profit organization that works closely with the city of Providence. Jane Sherman, the Greenway Project director, describes the project as "a proactive urban revitalization effort, focusing on environmental improvements, to restore green space and urban amenities in underserved neighborhoods and to stimulate economic reinvestment along the river corridor." The Providence Plan is responsible for overseeing the promotion, programming, community involvement, and long-term stewardship of the Greenway.

The transportation element will be a 7-kilometer bicycle and pedestrian path stretching from the Johnston-Providence line to Waterplace Park in downtown Providence. (Waterplace Park is an example of a completed urban redevelopment project and serves as an "anchor" for the ongoing effort along the rest of the river.)

The city and state have committed resources, technical assistance, and other support for the project. Specifically, Providence committed $3 million, and the Rhode Island State Planning Council approved $1.3 million from the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) for the design and construction of the bicycle path. In addition, the two brownfields sites located in the project area are included in the R.I. Department of Environmental Management's (DEM) Brownfields Demonstration Pilot.

The Greenway was considered to be an ideal Brownfields Showcase Community project because the restoration of the two brownfields sites will have an immediate, beneficial impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and will provide essential links for creating a continuous greenway along the river and into downtown Providence.

Brownfields Sites

The Greenway Project encompasses two brownfields sites - Riverside Mills and the Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill.

The approximately 2.4-hectare Riverside Mills site is located on Aleppo Street close to Olneyville square (the area's business district) and adjacent to the Woonasquatucket River. In December 1989, a fire destroyed all but the former office building of the Riverside Mills complex.

Due to the constant illegal dumping problem at the Riverside Mills site, the city secured the site with fencing and other barriers. Providence is proceeding with the acquisition of the site, and the city is helping to market approximately 450,000 liters of No. 6 fuel oil that was discovered during the DEM investigation.

Three specific parts of Riverside Mills are being evaluated for appropriate remediation. The master plan for the Greenway Project outlines the potential for two economic development parcels at this site. A 2,600-square-meter parcel, including a two-story former office building, has attracted substantial interest from non-profit organizations, artists, and an architectural firm. Another 4,000-square-meter parcel has been identified for commercial and/or light industrial development. If these economic development parcels are successful, a number of new jobs will be created. The remainder of the Riverside Mills site is in a flood plain, and plans are being developed to use the property for wetland restoration efforts and green space to serve the needs of the community. Along the river, a 24-meter easement will be retained for riverbank improvements and the bicycle/pedestrian path.

The Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill site, approximately 3.6 hectares, is located west of Riverside Mills across the Woonasquatucket River. The site is adjacent to residential neighborhoods and Merino Park, a 7.3-hectare city-owned park, which served the recreational needs of the residents of two neighborhoods until it was closed 10 years ago. Most of Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill was destroyed by fire in 1994, and the remaining buildings were demolished and removed by the city in 1997. Because of the location of this site and the plans to reopen Merino Park, redevelopment of this brownfields area can provide an opportunity to promote safe activity in the area and encourage increased use of the park. Similar to the Riverside Mills site, illegal dumping caused the city to secure the property and to proceed with acquisition. DEM is already working to clean up the worst of the pollution by removing a 113,562-liter oil tank that was leaking into the river. The estimated cost for total site remediation is $1 million.

Because the remediation costs for the Riverside Mills site and the Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill site exceed the value of the property, public assistance will be necessary to support private investment. However, the cleanup and redevelopment of these two sites will lead to additional cleanups that will generate interest and commitment from private developers and will ultimately lead to increased employment opportunities.

Community Needs

To understand the importance of this project to the communities along the river, it is helpful to look at the early development and economic history of Providence. The city's active mercantile trade and industrial growth, primarily in textiles, were supported by the shipping of materials and goods by railroad and by water - along the Woonasquatucket and other rivers and through the harbor on Narragansett Bay. And by the early 19th century, the river was exploited for water power, and factory sites, company-sponsored housing, and related industries began to line the banks as the mills flourished and spread out along the river corridors.

However, the Woonasquatucket River Valley has undergone significant changes as its economic importance has diminished. The manufacturing industries have experienced dramatic downturns, particularly over the past two decades. This has resulted in plant closures and job losses for many of the residents and a growing destabilization of the neighborhoods. These far-reaching changes have transformed the river corridor into an area in decline, struggling to survive.[1]

One local businessman reported that traffic congestion, the unsightly appearance of the area, and the large number of vacant houses and abandoned properties along the river are the principal impediments to his efforts to bring new businesses into the area.

Olneyville is considered one of the most distressed neighborhoods in Providence. More than 35 percent of its population live in poverty, and 43 percent do not have access to an automobile. When the Riverside Mills buildings were destroyed by fire, approximately 80 small businesses and 200 jobs were lost.

The Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill site is in the Hartford neighborhood, which has an even higher percentage (48 percent) of residents living in poverty.

Both brownfields have affected the environment and the surrounding communities, primarily due to their proximity to local residences. In the case of Riverside Mills, the only route to the river from the adjacent neighborhoods is across the site, and the site itself is used by children as a recreational area. Unfortunately, in three locations on the site, underground storage tanks are accessible at surface level. On several occasions, DEM personnel found that tank covers were removed, exposing the children to unacceptable risks. Also, DEM recently removed two drums of hazardous waste that had been dumped there, and the entire site is strewn with bulky solid waste. At the Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill site, even though the oil tank was removed, evidence remains of iron bacteria and iron precipitate being released into the river.

Local Commitment

The project has established a broad coalition of more than 100 organizations. The outreach effort included presentations to environmental and neighborhood groups throughout the city, programs along the river, educational visits to schools and community centers, and project planning sessions throughout the corridor. In addition, canoe and kayak programs, river tours, and similar activities have generated community interest in reclaiming the river and its adjacent spaces for recreational use.

The Woonasquatucket River Greenway Festival in 1997 drew 1,000 participants for a day of canoeing, pony rides, and entertainment. Local businesses sponsored the event and donated canoes and volunteers for the day. Entertainment was provided by neighborhood groups. Students from D'Abate Elementary School wrote and performed songs and dances with an environmental theme.

A class from Perry Middle School gave a dramatic presentation on the history of the river from its original pristine condition to its present state. They included a reference to a blue dye that changed the color of the river during the 1940s. Children who went swimming in the fiver against the wishes of their parents had their disobedience revealed by the blue dye.

Ongoing activities such as river cleanups and land beautification projects reflect the communities' awareness of the potential for environmental improvements. Three community centers have volunteered to help maintain areas along the river, and as more improvements are made, others are expected to "adopt" areas to clean up.

Members of the coalition of local groups also focus on other issues that are important to the neighborhood and complementary to the restoration of the brownfields. For example, the Olneyville Housing Project joined forces with Habitat for Humanity and the R.I. Organizing Project to promote housing rehabilitation and home ownership along the river corridor.

Community involvement in the planning process for the Greenway and brownfields redevelopment has been extensive. The biggest obstacle to be overcome was the skepticism of the community that any entity, public or private, would invest money to improve their neighborhood. According to project director Sherman, "Planning meetings began with a blank map, slides of the area, and no promises." Eighteen planning sessions at schools, churches, community centers, and housing projects established the direction for the project's master plan. The meetings were publicized with press releases and bilingual flyers distributed in the neighborhoods. Strategies for the reuse of the brownfields sites were integral to the discussions. The most common requests from all the meetings were for green space with grass and flowers and for a bicycle path along the river to provide a safer, more direct way to get to local stores and community services. The planned bicycle and pedestrian path will be a link to downtown Providence and to public transit, and the path will play a critical role as a transportation alternative for the "welfare-to-work" program.

Partnerships and Financing Issues

The Brownfields Showcase Community designation allowed the sponsors of the Greenway to pull together a number of traditional and innovative sources of funding and technical assistance for the many elements of this undertaking. The Providence Plan has received both public and private funding for the Greenway Project. Major contributors from the private sector include the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, Citizens Bank, and the Merck Family Fund. Environmental Justice and Environmental Education grants from EPA were used to defray the costs of outreach and public education activities.

The Greenway Project was one of the first urban programs in New England to partner with the National Parks Service's (NPS) Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program. NPS provided technical assistance for community events and developed educational materials specific to the Woonasquatucket River watershed area for use by local schools. In addition, NPS and The Providence Plan collaborated on developing an informational brochure about the Greenway Project.

Because the Riverside Mills and Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill sites are located within DEM's brownfields pilot area, they are eligible for the new Federal Brownfields Tax Incentive. The remaining building at Riverside Mills also qualifies for state tax incentives under the recently enacted Rhode Island Mill Building and Economic Revitalization Act. In addition, other sites in the project area that are identified later may be eligible for these tax incentives. These incentives not only assist in cleaning up contaminated brownfields sites, but they also provide tax credits for building improvements and the addition of new employees for businesses on eligible sites.

DEM received a $200,000 pilot grant from EPA to conduct environmental assessments on the two brownfields sites that had already been identified. This grant was matched with $210,000 in state money.

DEM is the owner of the largest piece of public property along the Woonasquatucket River - the 13.8-hectare Dyerville State Park. As part of their commitment to the Greenway Project, DEM leased the property to the Rhode Island Golf Association to redevelop the park as a nine-hole "urban golf course" and driving range, which will be accessible to urban youths and senior citizens alike. Except for the contribution of public property, the golf course will be constructed entirely with private money, estimated at more than $1 million. The golf association will provide instruction in golf skills and will also provide training in golf course management. The partners have pledged to develop and manage the golf course in a manner consistent with the environmental sensitivity of the river. Part of the park property located along the river will be set aside for the greenway and bikeway facilities.

As noted above, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) programmed $1.3 million in federal-aid funding for the design and construction of the bicycle/pedestrian path. Also, on their own property, RIDOT created the first "gateway" to the Greenway by providing a plaza with a seating area and a path to the river.

Another extremely important transportation link was restored when RIDOT, in conjunction with FHWA, rebuilt the Sheridan Street Bridge. This is a pedestrian facility over the Route 6 freeway, which links the Olneyville and Hartford neighborhoods with schools, the health center, stores, and each other. When the original bridge was destroyed in 1995, some children attending the Perry Middle School had to walk an additional 2.5 kilometers out of their way. Often, these students were inclined to scurry across the busy freeway to avoid the extra distance.

Although DEM has begun cleaning up the oil on the Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill site with a $300,000 allocation from their Oil Spill Restoration Fund, no funding has yet been identified for the full remediation of the two brownfields sites. When the Rhode Island/Providence partnership was selected as a Brownfields Showcase Community, it was said that they received a federal commitment of $1.8 million. However, there is no actual check for that amount. Rather, the figure is an estimate of the value of the technical assistance, loans, and incentives that would be available for the project. Moreover, the estimate was based on an assumption of eligibility for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program known as the Brownfields Economic Development Initiative (BEDI). BEDI is a loan program and is more applicable to the traditional type of reuse of brownfields.

In the past, brownfields redevelopment has usually concentrated on bringing "cleaner" commercial and light industrial uses to the former heavy industrial sites. With some exceptions, the Greenway Project focuses largely on public improvements such as parks and river recreation areas and access to schools, libraries, and health care. In that sense, Providence believes they are ahead of their time. However, based on current criteria, the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project does not qualify for the BEDI program.

Legal and Management Issues

One of the most often mentioned impediments to the reuse of brownfields is the liability issue. In many cases in the past, any entity who had any ownership interest in a contaminated property (even 1 percent) would be considered a "potentially responsible party" (PRP) and may have been liable for the entire cost of cleanup, even if he had no role in causing the contamination. In his change-of-policy announcement, Secretary Slater noted, "Federal and state policy changes have reduced liability concerns and stringent cleanup requirements that long discouraged the use of these properties."

The city of Providence is taking ownership of the Riverside Mills and Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill sites as tax-reverted sites, which comes under the EPA "involuntary acquisition" process. Under this procedure, the city does not become a PRP. Of course, part of the project's purpose is to clean up the contaminated sites; however, not becoming a PRP provides more flexibility and opportunities for innovation. It also reduces the concerns of potential private sector sponsors.

DEM has gained a great deal of experience in addressing problems related to ownership of brownfields properties through its use of a legal document known as a "Settlement Agreement and Covenant Not to Sue." This agreement identifies and limits each party's liability for any necessary. response actions that may be required at a site. However, the use of such agreements is limited to parties who are not responsible for the original contamination. These agreements have been very successful for abandoned properties, properties in receivership, and properties where a legally responsible party wants to sell and does not have the means to perform remediation. In addition, this type of agreement supports and facilitates DEM's voluntary cleanup program.

To gauge the success of the brown fields program in Rhode Island, DEM tracks the following information concerning the contaminated sites: site in an Enterprise Zone (yes or no), environmental land-use restriction (yes or no), use prior to remediation, reuse, size of parcel, value of parcel, size of buildings, taxes assessed, number of employees, number of new employees, type of jobs, and income tax generated. Using this data, DEM can boast that more than $1 million of property has been brought back onto municipal tax rolls anti more than 500 jobs have been created or retained within the state.

Rails to Trails

Of course, there is more to the bikeway corridor than these two brownfields sites. A concept that is similar to the brownfields initiative involves reclaiming abandoned railroad rights-of-way for reuse as modern transportation corridors, particularly bikeways. This is known as "rails to trails," and it is being proposed for portions of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project.

The railroad in the Greenway area was originally surveyed in 1856 along the Woonasquatucket River Valley from Olneyville to a mill village north of Providence known as Stillwater. In the late 1860s when the railroad was built, it was estimated that it carried more than 7,256 metric tons of freight by commercial establishments between the Merino Mills in Olneyville and Stillwater. The railroad supported the commerce of the Woonasquatucket River Valley, including nine cotton mills, two wool mills, and four factory stores.

By the 1920s when the automobile became the favored mode of travel, the number of passenger trains was decreased from five per day to two. After the Great Depression, passenger trains disappeared entirely, and freight service was provided only two or three times per week. This pattern of operation continued for several decades - as one by one the mills went out of business - until the remainder of the line was abandoned in the mid-1960s. Much of the abandoned railroad property in Providence is already owned by the state and is available for reuse as a bikeway.[2]

Summary and Lessons learned

Becoming a Brownfields Showcase Community has brought national, as well as local, attention to the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project: has helped to generate private investment; and has served as a platform from which to apply for specific grants for remediation. Sherman feels that required permits and individual project activities were accomplished more quickly than is usually the case. Regulatory agencies were willing to "come to the table" early, instead of waiting until project plans were more fully formed. In addition, Providence was "ahead of the curve" by going out to the community using a needs-based planning approach, long before the brownfields policy announcement was made. After the Greenway became an "official" brown fields project, each of the many partner agencies, including the FHWA Division Office, made a written commitment of what they would contribute to the process.

Rhode Island and Providence believe that the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project can serve as a model for future projects nationwide. It represents an example of stimulating economic redevelopment in a disadvantaged community through the creation of an urban greenway system. The two brownfields sites are seen as opportunities - not obstacles. The Greenway is a manageable project with clearly defined areas for strategic investment and a realistic potential for promoting residential stabilization and economic revitalization.

From the beginning, the community, with strong support from public, private, and non-profit organizations, has defined the project's scope and goals. The residents and businesses have embraced this effort.

The beneficial reuse of the Riverside Mills and Lincoln Lace and Braid Mill sites and the bikeway are important components of a plan to revitalize the river corridor, return the river as a positive asset, improve the quality of life, and bring back pride to the neighborhoods.[3]


1. "The Woonasquatucket River Greenway Plan." Urban Design Group/The Providence Plan.

2. "Planning/Design Feasibility Study - Woonasquatucket River Bikeway." Fay, Spofford & Thorndike Inc./RIDOT.

3. "The Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project - Brownfields Showcase Application." City of Providence/The Providence Plan.

Barbara J. Braswell is currently the environmental and realty program manager for the Rhode Island Division Office of FHWA. Previously, she served as temporary assistant division administrator, as well as planner and civil rights officer, in the Hawaii Division Office. She also served as an environmental specialist at FHWA headquarters. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Brown University.
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Author:Braswell, Barbara J.
Publication:Public Roads
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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