You can look at the entire City of Cleveland as a brownfield,” according to Jeff Epstein, the city’s chief of integrated development.
Brownfields mostly have negative environmental and social connotations. The sites may be contaminated by toxic chemicals in the soil, asbestos and lead-based paint and include unsafe, crumbling buildings and litter.
Epstein’s description of Cleveland was a purposeful exaggeration, of course, and he didn’t mean that the entire city would meet the official criteria to be classified as a brownfield. Also, that wide coverage he points to comes with an asterisk.
Like Epstein, Bryce Sylvester, senior director of site strategies for TeamNEO, believes brownfields are “part of the area’s manufacturing legacy.”
“I say that proudly. Our history of manufacturing has been one of our great strengths for a very long time. That means we have more challenges related to brownfield remediation. Dealing with some remediation on site is just a fact of development in Cleveland. But each site is different. Some sites need very little work, others have more intense remediation issues,” says Sylvester.
The question some community developers, investors, the public and other city stakeholders ask is if Cleveland is doing enough and doing it fast enough to remain competitive for attracting new development.
Local governments, economic development corporations and other groups have partnered with the state of Ohio,
JobsOhio and others to lure companies to the state. But locally there have been some disappointments. Are brownfields to blame for companies choosing Ohio cities other than Cleveland?
In 2019, Intel broke ground on a $20 billion construction project for semiconductor chip manufacturing in Licking County, outside of Columbus. The site will hire 3,000 employees. Cleveland cried. But our loss was not related to brownfield remediation, insists Sylvester. Intel needed 1,000 acres and Cleveland “has been built out approximately 50 years in advance of Columbus,” he says. It was more about “historical land use than brownfields.”
OK, but what about Google? In 2019, the company broke ground in New Albany for a $600 million data center. This past May, Google announced two more data centers for Lancaster and Columbus to be built on a former snake oil farm.
“You have to give Columbus credit for really having a dedicated strategy and a focus on certain development,” admits Sylvester. “Google went into an industrial park that caters to data center development. But it’s also still about the readiness and location of the land.”
Off the record, some players say we are digging and cleaning as fast as we can when considering red tape and other challenging factors. Others blame everyone from state and local politicians to environmental watchdogs to the uncertain real estate market for slowing things down in Northeast Ohio.
Jenny Carter-Cornell is the senior consultant-funding specialist for Verdantas, a national environmental and remediation firm with six offices in Ohio, including Cleveland and Columbus. Verdantas (formerly Hull & Associates LLC) was a pioneer in the Ohio
Voluntary Action Program (VAP) and previous state brownfield funding programs. The company continues to “address property challenges, oftentimes through transformative brownfield revitalization projects,” according to Carter-Cornell, a brownfield expert since 1998.
She is quick to defend Cleveland’s track record on brownfield cleanup.
“Most urban communities in Ohio are pretty successful at addressing brownfields and have been working on these sites for decades. So they know what to do,” says Carter-Cornell. “But Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are not only leading communities in Ohio, they are also considered leaders in the nation as having successful approaches to brownfields.”
Carter-Cornell believes stakeholders here know how to leverage a lot of money, and have cooperative, knowledgeable staff from the public and private sectors who tackle brownfields together. At national brownfield conferences, she says featured speakers are often from the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and Cuyahoga Land Bank.
Cleveland Brownfields: Past, Present and Future
What does this area’s past, present and future look like when it comes to brownfields? A quick look:
Collinwood Yards is the 47-acre site that contained underground storage tanks and heavy oils in its soil and groundwater. Six miles east of downtown Cleveland, it was first considered too cost prohibitive to clean the blighted property for redevelopment.
But later environmental assessments and grants from the state and Cleveland’s Neighborhood Development Investment Fund allowed Hemisphere Development and others to give the property its life back. Think jobs and surrounding development.
Collinwood Yards’ remediation efforts were heroic enough for the project to be recognized as a finalist in the 1999 Phoenix Award competition for the best brownfield project in the U.S., EPA’s Region 5.
Baiju Shah, president and CEO of Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP), points to the more recent Forward Innovation Center conversion of former Ford Motor Company property in Brook Park, as well as the redevelopment of the former Chrysler plant in Twinsburg as “significant examples of brownfield remediation.” The Brook Park site will be a manufacturing and distribution hub of 12 buildings with 3 million square feet of offices, warehouse space and industrial areas.
“It will bring Brook Park back,” says Mayor Edward Orcutt. “We were successful in 2022 in securing a $10 million grant for brownfield remediation, which will be used at the 208-acre development. At one time (Ford) had over 15,000 workers. Now they are down below 2,000. Obviously, our economy has struggled because of that, and our revenue stream is down with income. Forward Innovation Center is an opportunity for bringing in more jobs and more revenue.”
A second brownfield remediation is planned for the former Ford Stamping Plant in Walton Hills, which opened 1954 and was once the largest employer in the area. This will be another Forward Innovation Center.
The Forward Innovation Center hubs are the creation of Weston Inc. (a privately held commercial real estate company headquartered in Cleveland), DiGeronimo Companies (a national real estate company headquartered in Independence) and Scannell Properties, an international development and investment company with nine offices in the United States.
“On a smaller scale, Cleveland’s remediation of the former Midland Steel site led to the redevelopment as an Amazon distribution center,” says Shah. “Several sites along the Health Tech Corridor were former brownfields, including Dave’s Supermarket, University Hospitals Rainbow Center for Women & Children and the Link59 and Midtown Tech Park mixed commercial development.”
Link59 is an 11-acre site at Euclid Avenue and E. 59th St. that was once home to buildings owned by Ohio Knitting Mills, founded in 1927. The city of Cleveland acquired the property plus adjoining land and remediated the brownfield.
Are brownfields a true disadvantage to development?
The examples show that brownfields do not have to be seen as a “competitive disadvantage” for a city, according to Sylvester. He believes “the marketplace handles it fine” if there are no unexpected results.
“The issue of brownfields comes up when you don’t have answers. It’s not that a site is contaminated. Companies looking for sites to build on aren’t necessarily afraid of remediation,” says Sylvester. “Companies are most interested in speed and risk reduction. It’s what they don’t know about a site and its remediation that must be addressed.”
Sylvester says TeamNEO knows the importance of Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessments, but also Phase 2, which, among other responsibilities, communicates any issues to the marketplace. There is a need to know the history of a site, a cleanup timeline and what expectations are realistic, he says.
“If a company sends out a lead that they are considering your state or region for a project, they are demanding due diligence on that site. If you don’t have that information and analysis ready, you have a lower probability of staying in the game. You want to stay as long as you can and be the last one standing,” says Sylvester. “Time kills deals. You are in a competitive market all the time. If there is another site that is more ready than yours, you will probably lose out.”
Of course, brownfield conversions can be complex and don’t happen overnight. Shah sees several challenges to remediation within Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, the first being site access.
“Many brownfield sites are owned by nonoperating entities that can be difficult to track down. Sites may also have tax and other liens or encumbrances that can make securing titles a challenge,” says Shah. “And there is uncertainty. Even after doing a thorough site assessment, remediation can still contain surprises that lead to additional costs. Also, there’s ROI. Remediation costs are all incurred prior to getting a property to a developable standard. There is no return on these costs, thus it’s difficult for the private sector to absorb significant costs.”
Epstein says the goal is to prepare a site to be “as near as possible to any greenfield we have to compete with.” But he also sees advantages for employers looking at newly cleaned sites in the Cleveland area. Those include proximity to various forms of transit, a talented workforce and a wealth of universities and other educational institutions.
The EPA says that typically brownfields “are centrally located in metro areas with good connections to local infrastructure, including roadways and stormwater utilities.” Being able to reuse existing infrastructure is an important advantage to brownfield redevelopment “because this saves on infrastructure expense and prevents additional environmental degradation from building on greenfields,” according to the EPA. Of course, a city needs its infrastructure to be in good shape to handle any development — new or remediated.
In February, Cleveland City Council approved earmarking $3.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds (COVID-19 recovery funds) to match an additional $3.5 million from JobsOhio’s Ohio Site Inventory Program grants to remediate brownfields in Opportunity Corridor.
“Every economic development professional said it was a great idea to make an intervention where the market is not working to help bring jobs into the city. Over 10 to 20 years we could put more clean and productive land in the city back into use and create 40,000 jobs,” Epstein believes. “These would mostly be manufacturing and industrial jobs. But we are looking for businesses that pay good wages, provide opportunities for advancement and have a high density of jobs in a building or site.”
“The region needs a portfolio of fully ready commercial sites from urban and suburban sites of 10 to 100 acres and mega sites of more than 500 acres,” notes Shah. “Ready sites should be in every city’s or county’s plan if they are interested in business expansion.”
The Ohio Brownfield Remediation Fund is expected to provide $350 million in funding available for this fall and a second round in summer 2024. Carter-Cornell says Cuyahoga County received a whopping $90 million for its almost 50 brownfield projects in 2022.
“Some of those are smaller projects, but several are $10 million cleanups,” says Carter-Cornell. “The Greater Cleveland area should be so proud of public and private organizations and nonprofits working on those projects and others. My impression is that brownfield redevelopment is a very high priority for the city of Cleveland and other local organizations.”
Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and competition for cleanup money is fierce. In addition to the usual players, environmentalists, safety forces, medical professionals and families also know what is at stake.
Brownfield eradication is vital for economic development. But there is also a human, more personal, more immediate issue. Brownfield sites are often located in underserved communities and near homes, schools and small businesses. Vandals set fires; drug deals go down. Blowing winds pick up toxic particles from damaged buildings and contaminated soil and carry those into the community.
The EPA says 11% to 13% of jobs and housing growth expected between 2013 and 2030 in this country could be supported on brownfield sites. Will Cleveland be ready?