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Harbor Point a model for brownfield revitalization [Commentary]

Cities around the world are working to revitalize brownfield sites — areas where redevelopment or reuse may be complicated by some kind of contaminant — particularly in former waterfront industrial zones, where there is often the greatest opportunity to remake the city's image. Just as Baltimore has succeeded in redeveloping industrial sites from Canton to the Inner Harbor to Locust Point, decades of experience across America have created a base of knowledge that is allowing many such projects to move ahead safely, attracting residents and business back to our urban core.

Those of us who have been in the brownfields trenches for 15 or more years see the Harbor Point redevelopment as an example of the best brownfields and smart growth practices, developed through the carefully prescribed progression of site assessments, cleanup and redevelopment construction methods that eliminate exposure pathways. The cleanup objective was always to get beyond a fenced­off lot and redevelop the site as a prominent and extraordinary asset to the city and the neighborhood.

The community will gain many advantages from redevelopment, but one worth emphasizing in the context of protecting public health is "site cap redundancy." The current cap is fully protective to residents, business occupants and neighbors; the new buildings and garages will be added over the top of the cap, in effect, providing an extra layer of protection.

As to the other benefits of redevelopment, let us recount: a mixed-use walkable community, reinforcing state and regional smart growth objectives; 9.5 acres of public open space including a new 5-acre waterfront park; continuation of Baltimore's No. 1 amenity, its waterfront promenade; and a jewel of a site to market to out-of-town businesses that might be looking for that one site that combines water views, a cool creative community, and walking distance to the East Coast's most complete set of urban amenities. With Exelon, a leading national energy company, as its core tenant, Harbor Point will undoubtedly gain national recognition as a model for redevelopment and reuse.

For perspective, many urban waterfronts are impacted by more heavily-contaminated sites than the former Allied site. Waterfronts and ports in Portland, Tacoma, Glen Cove (New York), Brooklyn, Queens, Seattle, Buffalo, Toledo and right here in Maryland on the Anacostia, are all dealing with Superfund sites that need to be remediated. Impacted sites often sit idle for decades while EPA battles multiple responsible parties and tries to come up with acceptable cleanup and funding plans.

Many of these other cities have long-term visions that have yet to be realized. In Tacoma, Wash., cleaning up the Thea Foss Waterway was such an important objective that the city participated in a $106 million cleanup agreement that included a $56 million contribution from the city's Surface Water Tax. By comparison, the cleanup of the Honeywell site in Baltimore was much more cooperative, straightforward, and certain. Throughout the process, Allied and then Honeywell cooperated with regulators as the sole responsible party; there have been no lawsuits holding up cleanup and no public funding.

Finally, the questions that have been raised in relation to protection of public health boil down to this: is there any reason to believe that the regulators are not doing their jobs? Certainly, most people who attended Baltimore City Councilman James Kraft's public meeting last fall came away with a favorable impression that the regulators are fully in charge and acting in the best interest of the public. They have every motivation to get this right: They are bound by law to protect public health and the environment. Their worst mistake would be to ignore a public health risk that might come back to haunt them, especially on a site with this kind of prominence.

Regulators tend to practice the brownfields version of defensive medicine — let's order one more test, just to make sure. This is an extra expense to developers but one they willingly accept because they, too, do not want to cut any corners in an environment where successful marketing of the property depends on complete confidence in the measures taken to protect public health.

Harbor Point is on the verge of completing the long process needed to move forward and transform this barren former manufacturing facility into Baltimore's newest live-work-play waterfront gem.

Evans Paul, is principal at the consulting business Redevelopment Economics and advises developers, including the Harbor Point team, with respect to brownfields policy, financing and impact issues. Mr. Paull is also the Executive Director of the National Brownfields Coalition, and he initiated and then managed Baltimore's brownfields program from 1995 to 2006. His email is ev@redevelopmenteconomics.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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