Brownfield redevelopment is an art as much as it is science.

Published on 20 January 2020

Brownfield development

Developing Brownfields, previously developed properties left dormant, is essential for sustainable urban development. However, petroleum hydrocarbons from former gas stations or chlorinated solvents from former dry cleaning facilities often represent a barrier to redevelopment. Of course, our economic realities are not very helpful either. There are numerous studies showing that developing contaminated and underutilized properties have discernable positive impacts in the community. Benefits include higher property values, increased tax revenue, reduced urban sprawl, revitalization of older areas, job creation, prevention of contaminant migration and many others.

The large majority of brownfields are owned by the public sector. A developer wanting to start a brownfield project is not offered any incentives. Developers are left juggling the regulatory liability, red tape, unknown costs, and lack of support from municipalities and lenders. With so many unknowns, the financial feasibility of the project becomes a speculation.

Despite all these barriers, there are successful brownfield redevelopment stories. At the end of the day it is cheaper to remove the impacted material from a property while you have an entire construction team already mobilized and when you do not have to add the cost of importing new clean fill. Both the developer and the consultant need to be flexible and think outside the box in order to minimize the cost of the remediation. It also requires a high level of coordination from all the contractors involved. Brownfield Redevelopment is an art as much as it is science.

In the past 25 years we’ve helped numerous clients with their brownfield redevelopment projects. We take pride driving through Calgary and seeing new buildings where vacant contaminated land used to be.

We advise developers to consider the items below prior to their next brownfield redevelopment project:

  1. Know the contamination status of your property. Developing a contaminated property with only a Phase 2 might sound tempting; every cost reduction is important. However, the time to discover the depth and extent of your contamination is not when all the parties are mobilized on site and you already negotiated the excavation contract. Conduct a pre-development subsurface assessment which addresses all data gaps and allows the environmental consultant to understand the spatial and vertical extent of contamination.
  2. Have a strong Remedial Action Plan in place in order to obtain the Development Permit for your contaminated property. Include any risk management requirements so the workers on site are protected when coming in contact with the contamination.
  3. Be flexible with disposal options. There are several disposal options including municipal clean fill and Class II landfills, private Class II landfills, existing third-party treatment cells, and others. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages and the best disposal option for you depends on the particularities of your site. Oftentimes, soil from a property has to be hauled to 2 or 3 different locations to minimize the disposal costs. Make sure the cost for hauling to different facilities is included in your excavation contract.
  4. Think outside the box. The contaminated soil being excavated from your property does not always have to be dumped in a landfill. Discuss any treatment options with your consultant. Use another property that you own as a treatment cell; make sure you obtain all the necessary permits from Alberta Environment. Segregate coarse material prior to disposal. Modify your proposed construction plans to minimize the cleanup costs. Consider risk management options.
  5. Don’t leave any skeletons behind. If full remediation is the end goal, make sure you go after all old exceedances and address all historical exceedances. This may require deeper excavation, drilling from the final grade, additional remediation and, of course, this will all come at an extra cost; but obtaining that post construction loan will be a breeze.
  6. Remember, regulators and lenders have different requirements sometimes! Discuss your final goal with your environmental consultant. Is it feasible to achieve full remediation or will a portion of the site have to be risk managed? Is remediation done to Tier 1 or Tier 2 guidelines? What is the plan if contamination exceeds the final proposed grade?
  7. Trust your environmental consultant! Of course you need an experienced consultant when it comes to developing your contaminated property. But more than that you need to trust your consultant. When you have four different contractors mobilized on a site, decisions cannot take hours and your consultant needs to be comfortable making decisions on your behalf. Involve your consultant in the bidding process and have him closely supervise the excavation of impacted material.
  8. Have a strong contingency plan; this is even more important when the site is not assessed properly. Drilling and sampling is always limited by utility lines, buildings, available historical information, cost, bias in interpreting results and others. Only when the ground is excavated we truly have the 100% picture. Plan for the unknown.

With the right attitude and the right team behind you, an unused property can go from eye-sore to a modern community fixture while turning a considerable profit.