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Time to recycle old industrial America.

To some, the problem of vacant space in our older factory cities and suburbs is environmental "redlining." Builders, lenders, corporations and insurers systematically reject urban sites where even the slightest hint of industrial contamination exists.

Others call it the "brownfields" problem - that instead of recycling sites where the Industrial Revolution in America was born, places where much of our national wealth was generated and much of our history written, developers keep heading out for exurban "greenfields."

Then there's the new acronym TOADS - Temporarily Obsolete Abandoned Derelict Sites. Michael Greenberg and Frank Popper of Rutgers University thought up TOADS to describe the urban land that's hit the bottom of the land-use cycle: closed factones, boarded up housing projects, abandoned rail lines, tracts of overgrown, neglected land.

Greenberg says the thought of TOADS caine to him looking out the window of an Amtrak train at Chester, Pa., just south of Philadelphia, as he viewed the unsightly melange of a giant incinerator, refineries, junkyards and abandoned chemical plants and derelict housing.

Virtually every American "citistate", whether in its inner city or old industrial suburbs, or both, is pocked with brownfields/TOADS. We have al seen them, and flinched - whether the sight is a skeletal New England factory town or a ravaged Midwest "rustbelt" city, or the industrial dregs of Houston or Tacoma, Wash. With startling frequency, these areas are found close to neighborhoods of poor people, especially minorities. They are hideous icons of our throw-away civilization.

At Cleveland State University's college of Urban Affairs, I was reminded this summer that brownfields may seem like local problems but,in reality have regionwide impact. If Cleveland city and surrounding Cuyahoga County can't make more land available by solving the brownfields problem, the experts noted, then industrial development will be forced farther and farther onto greenfields, undermining" the city and county tax bases and triggering more sprawl development.

A chief villain, say critics, is the 13-year-old federal Superfund law and its state counterparts, which establish "joint and several" liability for any corporation, individual or government that's ever owned even a tiny piece of a polluted site. The result is a field day for trial lawyers and paralysis in efforts to recruit new owner/developers for even the most mildly suspicious site.

Several states are considering reforms, including assurance that a good faith buyer of a recycled site can't be held liable for any environmental dangers that might surface later.

Legislation just passed in New Jersey relaxes some of the rigid requirements of a 1983 environmental responsibility clean-up act.

Rather than 100 percent cleanup of contamination on a site intended for a factory or commercial building, for example, it may now be OK to install impermeable caps to stop any seepage. Critics said Jersey's old law was so cumbersome and expensive that it both hindered the rebirth of cities and drained the state of jobs. New Jersey has 17,000 potentially polluted industrial properties and hazardous-discharge sites. Many in the state believe that the law contributed to Jersey's loss of 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 1986.

State Rep. Tom Alley, chief author of four bills to loosen Michigan's very strict liability laws for possibly polluted properties, says the de facto redlining of old industrial properties in Detroit and blue-collar suburbs has generated intolerable costs:

"Urban devastation, and jobless workers, are left in the cities. With development forced outward, lots of open space and farmland gets gobbled up. There are tremendous public costs to provide new roads and services. And the old urban sites aren't cleaned up-they just sit there."

No one wants to gut today's environmental laws. The object, critics claim, is more rapid recycling, after taking reasonable safeguards, and less litigious wrangling that leaves sites in limbo for decades.

Our international citistate competitors, from Tokyo to London to Paris to Berlin, not only recycle old industrial lands more rapidly than we do, they make their cleanup efforts "a focal point" of metropolitanwide planning, says Robert Yarrow, executive director of the New York Regional Plan Association.

Yarrow points to over 12 years of intense effort to clean up the London Docklands and entire East Thames area. The Paris metropolitan authorities, he notes, are intent on reclaiming former industrial areas along the Seine. Berlin is now anxious to bring back the old port on the Spree River, close to the demolished Berlin Wall and old city center.

The Japanese, Yarrow observes, are into second and, in some cases, third generation of recycling since World War II. "In fact the term derelict doesn't translate into Japanese because lands get recycled so quickly."

Reclaimed brownfields won't, on their own, save urban areas wracked by severe crime and high taxes. But recycled lands could into more tax receipts for the hard-hit city or older suburb. They would mean more jobs for low-income city residents who find themselves cruelly cut off from job opportunities in the new "edge cities" and distant greenfield sites.

If experience around the world says smart recycling of land relates to building economically and socially strong citistates, isn't it time for us to get with it.
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Author:Peirce, Neal R.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Aug 23, 1993
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