Project targets most promising properties for redevelopment
Thursday, March 30, 2017

University of Iowa students are partnering with communities in eastern Iowa to help local leaders identify abandoned properties and decide which ones hold the greatest potential for reuse.

The properties the students are cataloging are called brownfields. These are sites where redevelopment has been complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. There are brownfields scattered all across Iowa, and civic leaders in several towns have struggled to figure out what to do with them.

The UI students, part of the graduate program in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, are helping communities in Clinton and Jackson counties with their efforts.

Upcoming events

UI students will brief civic leaders on their inventory effort at brownfields workshops on April 5 in Maquoketa and April 6 in Manchester. The workshops are free and open to the public. Participants can register here.

The project, which began in August, is part of a year-long partnership between the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities and the East Central Intergovernmental Association (ECIA), which works with communities in five eastern Iowa counties—Cedar, Clinton, Delaware, Dubuque, and Jackson.

Sarah Gardner, a second-year master’s student involved in the project, says there’s a lot of confusion about brownfields. The vast majority, in fact, don’t need serious remediation, she says.

“That’s really empowering to communities,” Gardner says, “to find out this is something they can address and something they can do themselves.”

For the past few months, the students—Gardner, Robert Caudill, and Jay Fieser—have fanned out to Clinton, Maquoketa, and Preston to identify brownfields. They’re building a database of brownfields in each town and are developing a set of criteria town leaders can use to decide which properties hold the most promise for redevelopment.

The communities have welcomed the help, says Gardner, who’s from Davenport, Iowa.

“As long as these brownfields exist,” she says, “these communities can feel disinvested. We have a group of students who can change the dynamics, turn these underutilized properties into an asset. We see them as hidden assets.”

ECIA obtained a $550,000 grant from the EPA for the brownfields project. The funding is a crucial step to establishing a sustainable brownfields program for the region, says Kelley Hutton Deutmeyer, ECIA’s executive director. The students’ work will help ECIA determine to which sites the group will commit time, money, and personnel.

She says the students’ involvement has been critical.

“They save ECIA months of staff time and allow us to shift our EPA grant money to assessment projects rather than to pay a consultant to do the inventory for us,” Hutton Deutmeyer says. “It’s a win-win all around.”

The catalog, called the IA Reuse Readiness Toolkit, is more than simply locating brownfields in each community. It will include valuable details about each site, including the current property owner, past owners, potential contaminants present, and proposed future uses.

The inventory also ranks the properties’ reuse potential. Compiled in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, it has a built-in scoring system that prioritizes sites based on the potential community impact of their redevelopment. Community leaders can update information and revise the score as circumstances warrant.

“The scoring system is transparent, and it allows city administrators to raise the scores of sites they deem to be community priorities by providing more information for those sites,” Gardner says.

Caudill led the creation of the brownfields-rating software. He said he chose Excel because most people are familiar with it.

When the students debuted the tool kit in Clinton, officials asked how much it would cost.

“They were surprised when we told them, ‘This is going to be free. You can just use it,’” says Caudill, a second-year master’s student from Knoxville, Tennessee.

The information could help decrease the time from when a property is abandoned to when it can become a contributor to the tax base.

It also could be a template for towns across Iowa to assess brownfields and their potential reutilization, says UI associate professor Jerry Anthony who, along with assistant professor Phuong Nguyen, both from the School of Urban and Regional Planning, is involved in the initiative.

“That’s why this project is important, I think,” Gardner says. It’s giving small towns the same access large cities have to the information and resources needed to address brownfield sites.”