Kickstarting New Brownfields Development in Portland

For a city as deeply steeped in all things sustainable, organic, gluten-free, and vegan as Portland, Oregon, it is surprising that the city does not have more of a thriving Brownfields program. Brownfields are the contaminated properties (and eyesores) remaining after a commercial or an industrial use is abandoned—think former gas stations and dry cleaners. A Brownfields program provides incentives for cleanup and redevelopment of these properties. Portland has over 900 acres of designated Brownfields, many in choice locations or in underserved neighborhoods.

This is not to say that Portland does not have a Brownfields program. It does and has for many years. The Pearl District and South Waterfront are high-profile examples of formerly contaminated areas that have been successfully redeveloped with help from the City. But the program has stalled in recent years because developers remain skittish about developing contaminated (or potentially contaminated) property without financial incentives to sweeten the deal, or liability protection against cleanup costs. Most recently-funded Brownfields projects in Portland have been focused on the North and Northeast Portland areas, but the numbers are not large, just a couple per year on average.

All of this might change, however, following a new resolution passed by the City Council on July 19. The resolution directs a working group from several City Bureaus to evaluate the development of a new Brownfield cleanup tax incentive and report back to the Council within a year. The proposed incentive would provide property tax abatement in proportion to the costs necessary to clean sites sufficiently for commercial or industrial reuse. Owners who caused or contributed to the contamination would not be eligible.

Commissioner Nick Fish estimates that remediating all contaminated properties in the city would cost about $240 million. However, full redevelopment of those properties could result in 31,000 new jobs and $40 million annually in new tax revenue, and could account for 30% of future job growth, in addition to providing new sites for badly-needed affordable housing.

The City's resolution is modeled on similar programs from Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Texas. North Carolina's program spurred $15 billion in new capital investments statewide.

Given the freeze of industrial development in the city because of the never-ending cloud hanging over the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in NW Portland, having access to some "fresh meat" in developable Portland real estate would invigorate industrial and commercial growth. This will, in turn, generate jobs to generate tenants to fill the expensive apartment developments popping up all over town, some themselves the product of Brownfields redevelopment (for example, The Boathouse).