Home Brownfield, Vacant, and Underutilized Sites in Greensboro

The following is an excerpt from an issue paper by Megan E. Culler analyzing the problem of brownfields and vacant property in Greensboro, N.C., which was written for Prof. Raymond Burby's class on Development and Environmental Management.

Redevelopment of Brownfield, Vacant, and Underutilized Properties in Greensboro, NC

Part 1. Defining the Problem of Brownfield and Vacant or Underutilized Sites in Greensboro

The Problem of Brownfields and Abandoned or Underutilized Sites

Greensboro’s urban neighborhoods suffer from the presence of vacant and underutilized properties and brownfield sites. Like many cities, Greensboro experienced a period of development in the suburbs, annexation, weakened sales among downtown retailers, and the loss of its manufacturing base. This led to the related problems of sprawl and loss of open spaces at the city’s fringe coupled with deteriorating urban neighborhoods and central business district. Brownfields and abandoned properties near minority and low-income neighborhoods concentrated in the central city have driven down property values. Greensboro’s comprehensive plan includes the objectives of identifying brownfield and underutilized/abandoned properties or buildings, seeking funding for their redevelopment, and expediting opportunities for their reuse (Greensboro Planning Department, 2003). The first part of this issue paper reports the extent of the problem of brownfields and underutilized properties, identifies the cause of this problem, and examines existing policies that effect the potential for the redevelopment of these sites. In the second part, I will identify the objectives that an adequate solution to the problem must meet, describe and evaluate possible alternative solutions, and recommend a course of action and further analysis.

What is the magnitude of Greensboro’s brownfields and vacant or underutilized sites problem?

In February 2009, Forbes.com listed Greensboro/High Point as fourth in a list of America’s emptiest cities, based on Census vacancy data (Greenburg, 2009). This ranking was repeated in the national media, debated by local newspapers, and contested by elected officials. Is Greensboro as abandoned as these reports claim? Census data indicate that, while housing vacancy is not as widespread as the Forbes report claimed, certain sections of downtown Greensboro have very high housing vacancy rates, and based on what data are available, Greensboro appears to have a higher number of brownfield sites than many other North Carolina cities.

A brownfield is a piece of real property whose potential for redevelopment, reuse, or expansion is complicated by the presence, or potential presence, of contaminants or pollutants (US EPA OSWER Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization, 2009). It is difficult to determine how many brownfields sites exist in Greensboro; North Carolina does not maintain a list of brownfields sites out of concern that such a list would stigmatize those sites and hamper rather than encourage redevelopment (NC Brownfields Program, n.d.). Many potential brownfield sites are included on the N.C. Voluntary Cleanup Program’s inactive hazardous sites list. Inactive hazardous sites are defined as sites with “confirmed contamination or known disposal of hazardous substances” (Subchapter 13C: Inactive Hazardous Substance or Waste Disposal Sites, 1989). Unfortunately for our analysis, not all of the sites on this list are brownfields, since the list includes sites that are still in use. Nonetheless, it was the most complete identifiable listing of sites in North Carolina contaminated by hazardous pollutants. According to this list, Guilford County has 132 inactive hazardous sites, second only to Mecklenburg County, which has 274 sites. Ninety of Guilford County’s sites have Greensboro addresses (Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch, 2009).

The North Carolina Brownfields Program also keeps a list of brownfield sites that have been redeveloped or that have a prospective developer. Their list includes 19 sites in Greensboro, out of 267 total sites statewide. It should be kept in mind that this list does not include any sites that do not already have a prospective developer, and should therefore be seen as an indication of the level of brownfield redevelopment that is taking place, rather than the total number of brownfields. Greensboro’s frequent appearance on this list is likely a positive sign that redevelopment is taking place.

According to the Forbes report mentioned above, Greensboro has the fourth highest vacancy rate in the United States. However, U.S. Census and American Community Survey Data do not seem to bear this out. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, Greensboro’s overall housing vacancy rate was not unusual; in fact, its 7% vacancy rate was lower than the overall U.S. rate of 9%. 2000 U.S. Census data for the City of Greensboro, the Greensboro-Winston Salem-High Point MSA, and Guilford County were all considerably lower than national levels. The 2006-2008 American Community Survey estimates show Greensboro at 11.5% vacancy, inching closer to the overall U.S. rate of 12%, but still slightly lower.

While the census data do not provide evidence that the problem of vacancy is particularly severe in Greensboro, they do reveal concentrated areas of census tracts with very high housing vacancy rates, some as high as 17%, in the southern and eastern sections of the center city. Furthermore, they show that vacancies increased in Greensboro and Guilford County at a far greater rate than they did nationwide during the 2000 to 2008 period. The percent change in vacancy rates was 33.81% nationwide, compared to 64.59% for the City of Greensboro. This suggests that, while Greensboro’s vacancy rate is not unusual in the current economic climate, there is a serious risk that vacancies will continue to grow at a rate greater than the national average. It should also be noted that the census numbers only refer to housing vacancies, and do not shed light on commercial real estate vacancy rates.

Table 1: Percent Vacant Housing
2000 2006-2008 Percent Change
United States 8.99% 12.04% 33.81%
Guilford County, North Carolina 6.50% 11.00% 69.30%
Greensboro city, North Carolina 6.97% 11.48% 64.59%
Greensboro--Winston-Salem--High Point, NC MSA 6.92% -- n/a
Greensboro-High Point, NC Metro Area -- 10.70% n/a
Sources: 2000 U.S. Census, Summary File 3, 2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-year Estimates, Summary File 3

The city’s comprehensive plan states that new growth in the region is expected to occur primarily through redevelopment and revitalization of obsolete industrial and commercial areas (Greensboro Planning Department, 2003). If this is true, the problem of underutilized or abandoned sites can be expected to decrease in the future, and market pressures might make the development of brownfield sites more attractive. However, the plan also predicts development of annexable areas to continue into the future. Unless the city finds ways to make development of urban brownfields competitive with greenfield development, these properties are likely to continue to be underutilized due to the relative risks and expense associated with their development.

Why are brownfields and vacant or underutilized properties important?

Encouraging the redevelopment of brownfields and other vacant or underutilized sites is important if Greensboro wants to meet its goals of compact development and revitalizing its downtown. Identifying and remediating brownfield sites, as well as other vacant or unused sites, for redevelopment and infill takes pressure off of greenfield sites at the city’s fringe. By funneling more redevelopment to the city’s downtown rather than its fringes, the city has the opportunity to reduce its infrastructure costs while preserving open space and farmland.

Brownfields and vacant sites can also play a role in troubled urban neighborhoods. In their current state, they pose health and safety risks to residents. They might also have negative effects on property values, and discourage nearby development. Greensboro’s comprehensive plan asserts that brownfields and vacant properties are disproportionately located in low income and minority neighborhoods. An analysis of census data confirms this claim; the census tracts with the highest housing vacancy rates also tend to be African-American neighborhoods. Brownfields and inactive hazardous sites are more dispersed, but are somewhat more common in neighborhoods with larger African-American populations. For example, the South Elm Street neighborhood, home to a large planned brownfields remediation and redevelopment project, is 76 percent minority and has a 31% poverty rate (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010). The city should monitor the condition of the surrounding neighborhood throughout the redevelopment of this site to learn what effects this site has on the neighborhood and to provide insight into the effects of potential future brownfield redevelopment projects.

2KVac 2000 Percent African American by Census Tract in Greensboro, NC

The location of brownfields or vacant properties in low-income and minority neighborhoods is significant for two reasons. First, it can have a negative impact on these neighborhoods, putting residents’ health at disproportionate risk and having a blighting effect on the neighborhood. Abandoned buildings can also result in increased crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods (Spelman, 1993). This raises serious equity concerns. At the same time, these neighborhoods are generally seen as riskier by developers and investors, creating additional disincentives for their redevelopment on top of inherent risks associated with contaminated sites. The equity issues associated with the location of brownfields and vacant properties in disadvantaged neighborhoods, coupled with the general difficulty of spurring development in these neighborhoods, provides an ethical impetus for government intervention.

Another reason brownfield and vacant sites are important is the historic character of many of these sites. Abandoned or unused sites are at high risk for deterioration and vandalism. Sites that add to community character or have significant historical or aesthetic value could be lost if barriers to rehabilitation and redevelopment cause them to continue to site idle.

Possible causes

The relative ease of developing new greenfield sites and the expense, difficulty, and uncertainty of redeveloping brownfield and other older properties might discourage development from occurring on brownfields or vacant infill properties. While tax incentives and grants are available (discussed in more detail below), brownfield sites still require a great deal of time and investment before they are suitable for redevelopment. According to one estimate, the cost of brownfield development is anywhere from twenty to sixty percent higher that the cost of development on the urban fringe (Whitney, 2003). Developers might also fear liability; although laws exist to protect purchasers of property from liability for contamination resulting from the actions of prior owners, some developers might still be unwilling to take the risk. Redeveloping brownfield sites does require additional levels of oversight beyond what is required on greenfield sites.

The high housing vacancy rates in downtown might suggest that one reason underutilized sites are not being redeveloped more quickly is that there is a lack of interest in living or locating a business in the downtown. On the other hand, it is possible that the presence of dilapidated or contaminated properties is one of the causes of the high vacancy rates in parts of downtown; residents and businesspeople may simply be unwilling to locate in blighted neighborhoods where brownfields or vacant properties can be found. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to tease out what is cause and what is effect in this situation.

In addition, Greensboro’s manufacturing base has been shrinking, meaning some sites formerly used for manufacturing or as warehouses are no longer being used, allowing them to become brownfields. Past development policies also contributed to the abandonment of the downtown area in favor of the city’s fringes. Rapid annexation from the 1950s through the 1990s spurred development outside of the center city (Greensboro Planning Department, 2003).


Works Cited:

Brinkley, S. (n.d.). NC Inactive Hazardous Sites Program - Site Evaluation & Removal Branch. Retrieved January 18, 2010, from http://www.wastenotnc.org/sfhome/SERB.htm

Brinkley, S. (n.d.). NC Inactive Hazardous Sites Program. Retrieved January 18, 2010, from http://www.wastenotnc.org/sfhome/ihsbrnch.htm#voluntary

Brownfields Property Reuse Act of 1997. (1997). N.C.G.A. 130A-310.30.

Greenburg, Z. O. (2009, February 12). America's Emptiest Cities. www.Forbes.com. online magazine. Retrieved January 17, 2010, from http://www.forbes.com/2009/02/12/cities-ten-top-lifestyle-real-estate_0212_cities.html

Greensboro Planning Department. (2003, May 6). Greensboro Connections 2025 Comprehensive Plan. City of Greensboro.

Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch. (2009, December 31). Inactive Hazardous Sites and Pollutant-Only Sites Inventory By County. North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Retrieved from wastenot.enr.state.nc.us/SFHOME/IHS_County_List.pdf

Lehmert, A. (2009, December 22). Panel backs S. Elm Street hotel project. Greensboro News & Record (NC). Retrieved from http://www.newsrecord.com/content/2009/12/21/article/ commission_approves_land_sale_for_proposed_hotel

Spelman, W. (1993). Abandoned buildings: Magnets for crime? Journal of Criminal Justice, 21(5), 481-495. doi: 10.1016/0047-2352(93)90033-J

Subchapter 13C: Inactive Hazardous Substance or Waste Disposal Sites. (1989). 15A NCAC 13C .0201.

N.C. Division of Waste Management. (n.d.). North Carolina Brownfields Program: Redevelopment Now. Retrieved January 18, 2010, from http://www.ncbrownfields.org/redevelopment_now.asp

NC Brownfields Program. (n.d.). NC Brownfields Program - Program FAQ. Retrieved January 18, 2010, from http://www.ncbrownfields.org/

Registered Environmental Consultant Program. (1997). Retrieved from http://www.wastenotnc.org/sfhome/VRAOREC.HTM

Sabbath, J. (2003, Spring). The Community Reinvestment Act: A Growing Tool for Brownfield Redevelopment. Community Reinvestment Forum, 1-7.

Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act Brownfields Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act of 2001. (2001). Public Law 107-118 (H.R. 2869).

State Mill Rehabilitation Tax Credit. (2007). N.C.G.S. 105-129.70 through .75.

Taxation of improvements on brownfields. (2000). N.C.G.S. 105-277.13.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2010, January 17). Brownfields Grant Fact Sheet: Greensboro, NC | Brownfields and Land Revitalization | US EPA. Retrieved January 18, 2010, from http://cfpub.epa.gov/

US EPA OSWER Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization. (2009, December 15). Brownfields | US EPA. Retrieved January 18, 2010, from http://www.epa.gov/brownfields/

Whitney, H. (2003). Cities and Superfund: Encouraging Brownfield Redevelopment. Ecology Law Quarterly, 30, 59. Retrieved from http://heinonline.org