The Smart Land Use Program Both Democrats and Republicans Love

The Linen Building in Boise, Idaho, is the kind of local success story that makes the EPA’s Brownfields program so popular.

Top: American Linen Supply, Boise, Idaho in 1950. Middle: In 2004, it was a blighted, environmentally contaminated site that scared developers away. Top: The redeveloped Linen Building houses a hotel, coffee shop, and restaurant. The site also hosts weddings, concerts and art shows. Images: Idaho Department of Environmental Quality

In the late 1990s, this former commercial laundry had become a blight on the city — a large vacant building in a prime, walkable downtown location. Developers admired it, but they knew that the former occupant — American Linen — had kept tanks of diesel fuel and industrial cleaning solvents in underground tanks. The threat of contamination was enough to scare off developers like David Hale of Hale Development.

“The unknown risk associated with potential contamination in the groundwater flowing on to and off of the site has caused the majority of possible buyers to seek other options,” Hale said.

Today Hale himself has transformed the site into a local gem. The Linen Building hosts art shows, concerts and weddings, in addition to regular tenants, including a restaurant, a coffee shop and a hotel with 41 rooms. Later this month this building will host the Treefort Music Festival, a four-day indie rock festival, that will draw some 3,000 people each day.

With an EPA Brownfields grant, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality conducted a groundwater analysis back in the early 2000s that determined the site was not the source of groundwater contamination. And that was enough to convince Hale to move forward with his plans to “lure people and businesses associated with the creative class.”

What made this project possible was environmental analysis through the EPA’s Brownfield Utilization program, which assists communities that want to bring contaminated property back into productive use.

There are an estimated 450,000 such sites around the country. These parcels average 6.5 acres each, together amounting to some 4,570 square miles of contaminated land, Smart Growth America estimates. Virtually every community in the country has one of these sites, which further the impression among developers that it’s too complicated and costly to develop infill locations in the urban core. Instead they bring their development to greenfield locations on the fringes, draining revenues out of cities and perpetuating disinvestment.

But there’s good news for these communities this week. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have come together to support the reauthorization of the EPA’s program. The Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development (BUILD) Act was introduced late last week by a bipartisan coalition, sponsored by some of the most conservative members of of the Senate, including James Inhofe (R-OK) and Michael Crapo (R-UT) as well as Democrats Frank Lautenberg (NJ) and Tom Udall (NM). The new legislation not only proposes renewing the program but also expanding some funding and increasing flexibility. The bill would allow nonprofits to seek funding for site remediation and raises the limits on those remediation grants from $200,000 to $500,000.

Geoff Anderson, SGA’s CEO and president, says what’s made this program a bipartisan priority in such polarizing times is the sheer need and its track record for success.

“This bill is a lifeline to communities that are struggling to overcome blight and contamination at abandoned industrial sites,” he said. “And it will work in every community — big or small, urban or rural — re-positioning vacant properties to create new engines of economic growth.”