Brownfields fewer as Fairfield cleans up for redevelopment

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Municipalities across the state are increasing their rehabilitation of brownfield sites, including several notable examples within Fairfield County.

The assessment, remediation and redevelopment of such long-vacant properties — some abandoned for decades — into usable and taxable commercial and residential parcels has the potential to revitalize previously ignored real estate as never before.

On the state level, the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) is taking a leading role, doling out grants and loans to qualifying towns and cities “to develop specific, actionable plans that will clean up multiple brownfields, leverage private investment, and bring jobs and new economic activity to long-dormant corridors throughout the state,” said DECD Deputy Commissioner Tim Sullivan.

“These sites are everywhere,” he said. “We have a process of determining what towns and what projects in those towns qualify” for financial aid. “Generally they apply to us, but if we hear of something that we think we could help address, we’ll get in contact with them.”

Stratford is one town that has been particularly busy in this area.

“We had a number of large commercial properties around town that hadn’t paid taxes for over 20 years,” said Stratford Economic Development Director Karen Kaiser. “We were able to apply to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and DECD to help us clean up the sites.”

Those brownfield projects include the site of Two Roads Brewery at 1650-1700 Stratford Ave., the former headquarters of machinery company U.S. Baird, now operating in Thomaston. The brewery conducted an environmental assessment and abatement of building contaminants including asbestos and lead paint.

The cleaned-up property provides nearly 100,000 square feet of space in four buildings used for brewing and tasting room operations as well as storage and administrative office space.

Work was funded in part by a $500,000 Municipal Brownfield Grant, a $100,000 Small Business Express Grant, and a $1 million Connecticut Development Authority loan.

At Mercer Coal Towers, 2350 Stratford Ave., demolition took place a year ago and remediation on the roughly 1-acre site is near completion. Funding included a $200,000 EPA grant and a $200,000 grant from DECD.

“It’s down to removing a couple of piles of concrete off the property,” Kaiser said. “Then we’ll put it up for RFPs (developers’ proposals). We’ve already received some interest in it.”

A brownfield cleanup continues at the 10.5.-acre site of Contract Plating at 540 Longbrook Ave. Funding included a $2.85 million DECD grant.

Closed in 1995, Contract Plating left behind a variety of contaminants, including chromium and arsenic. Kaiser said that when finished, the property could be used for housing or possibly light industrial or commercial use.

Stratford’s largest brownfield site, the 3.6-acre Center School property at 1000 E. Broadway, lies in the Stratford Center Transit Oriented Development zone. Funding for its cleanup included a $1.2 million DECD grant.

Decommissioned as a school in 2005, the building until recently was used by the Stratford Board of Education as the site for classes for suspended students and adults with special needs. Now the property of the town and within a quarter-mile of the town’s train station and adjacent to Intersate 95, the site is viewed as ripe for development. Kaiser said town officials hope to turn it into a mixed-use development.

“There is such a rich, historic value in downtown Stratford,” she said. “We’re not looking to take that away, but to keep it in line with making this a livable, walkable city, like what you see in downtown Fairfield.”

Kaiser credited Mayor John Harkins with leading the town’s brownfields development charge — which included butting heads with the town council this summer when council members balked at the prospect of razing Center School

In Bridgeport, the city in February received a $2 million DECD loan to clean a 2.2-acre site in the city’s Eco-Technology Park and a $200,000 grant to assess several properties near the Newfield branch of Bridgeport Library that the city hopes to utilize for mixed-use development.

In Norwalk, brownfield remediation and redevelopment projects are burgeoning, according to Susan Sweitzer, senior project manager at the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.

Remediation efforts at properties at 13 and 20 Day St. that have sat vacant for 40 years are underway as part of the city’s Choice Neighborhoods Program, with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The initiative supports locally driven strategies to address struggling neighborhoods with distressed public or HUD-assisted housing through neighborhood transformation.

Sweitzer also noted that work needs to be done “at a giant landfill” in South Norwalk, “where dumping went on for years. Some of those contaminants go away by themselves, and some don’t.”

“But we haven’t run into any real surprises” at brownfield sites she said. “If you find something on this block, chances are you’ll pretty much find the same thing on the next block.”

Neal Holdridge, principal and environmental manager at Trammell Crow Co., a commercial real estate developer and investor in Newport Beach, California, said not all brownfield development stories go so well.

“It can be more art than science” in working such deals, he said. “Most real estate developers don’t want to deal with brownfields because of the liability risk that could accrue to them. If you’ve taken over a property that a company that’s since gone out of business owned 20 years ago and then find out that you’ve got a major contamination problem, that’s your responsibility.”

Even when those liabilities can be avoided by a state or local permit, Holdridge said surprises can still pop up. “There’s what we call a constructability risk. If you’re in the middle of construction and find something that needs to be cleaned up … it needs to be cleaned up now. That means that work is stopped until you’ve finished cleaning it up. And that usually isn’t just a matter of a few weeks.”

From a real estate perspective, he said, “It has to be leasable, saleable, usable. The brownfields part doesn’t drive the bus. Being a good piece of real estate drives the bus.”

Given the large investments of money and manpower needed to convert brownfields into usable property, land banks can be an attractive option. Created by municipalities to effectively manage and repurpose an inventory of underused, abandoned or foreclosed properties, land banks are often empowered by charter to accomplish those goals in ways that city governments cannot.

“Smaller towns throughout the state that don’t have the staff and money to pull these projects off — who face long-term challenges but maybe only have a part-time economic development director — can benefit from a land bank,” said Sullivan.

State legislation designed to enable and encourage the development of land banks failed this year due to minor disagreements over the bill’s language, but Sullivan said he believes the measure will pass in the next General Assembly session scheduled to begin in January.

In 2014, Arthur Bogen, president of Down to Earth, an environmental consulting firm in Essex in Middlesex County, started the Connecticut Brownfield Land Bank. it is “the only one that I’m aware of” in the state, said Sullivan.

“We don’t have county governments in Connecticut like other states do,” said Bogen, who also expects the brownfields land bank bill to pass. “We’re here to help them move brownfields projects forward, sites that municipalities have been stuck with for a long time.”

The Connecticut Brownfield Land Bank seeks to work with municipalities, the state, community stakeholders, social investors and developers to create the processes that will foster successful projects, he said. Groups supporting the land bank include the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, the Northwest Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, and The Workplace, which has in place a brownfield job program to train workers in the field. Bogen said the program has had “very high placement rates.”

Bogen’s land bank enterprise operates on a per-property fee basis and is actively seeking funding from foundations and philanthropists, he said.

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