Redevelopment of Obsolete
Land Uses in Your Community

Redevelopment means re-using and improving real estate in your neighborhood or city by adding or rehabilitating buildings, making more marketable properties. Often the term is used when something ugly or outmoded is cleared (demolished) to make way for the new.

It might mean a new mixed-use project that will reduce traffic congestion and give the neighborhood a boost. Or maybe it might be downtown renovation with new infill buildings that renews prosperity for the entire community.

The term can mean anything from tweaking an existing site to a major reconfiguration of land, featuring construction of an entire new landscape and set of buildings. The continuum is something like this:

•An existing building or complex is refurbished and the land uses are aligned with current market trends.

Infill housing or other development adds density (typically described in housing units per acre) or intensity (greater physical or economic activity) to a site that already contains some buildings.

•Construction occurs on a vacant site that was occupied within the memory of some people in your community.

•Existing buildings are demolished and new ones constructed.

•Construction is arranged on vacant land formerly part of an industrial yard that contaminated the soils, which would be known as a brownfield.

Sometimes the program includes re-use of a few residential lots or a vacant commercial complex in a way that permits reconstructing a street grid to create walkability, as in a suburban retrofit.

Other times a community is presented with a well-defined piece of underperforming real estate. If it's Granville Island, actually a peninsula into False Creek in Vancouver, it was once a failing 37 acre industrial area. Now it's fashionable and fun, with markets, museums, abundant arts, an arty school, and other cool things.

Or it could expand as far as figuring out what to do with an entire shrinking city.

The Process for Sites That Will Be Re-Used

Typically redevelopment begins with assessing the current condition of and market for the site. If there is no change in ownership, of course these data already exist, and owners and managers simply need to test the market.

The simplest solution will be an upgrade to the existing use in the existing facility. Tenants may change; a fast food restaurant may convert from one brand to another and change the look of the operation to fit the new guidelines.

If the market for the existing use is poor, though, the next step is to consult commercial brokers and community marketing professionals in your city or state about other potential uses of the property.

If an owner is contemplating the sometimes expensive and frustrating process of changing uses, at least he or she deserves to know if there is a lively market for the expected future use.

Then let's move to the more mainstream meaning of the term, in which the land and/or buildings have been vacant for some time. The land may have been sold, and in any case, the owner is wondering what to do.

Sometimes the municipal government is more concerned than the owner. Especially long time owners sometimes become pessimistic and therefore passive about managing land, waiting for some "better market" to come their way.

We think vacant land is an invitation to problems. At the very least, it always signals a lack of demand for and interest in your neighborhood. So if you're the neighborhood association, be concerned, even if no one else seems to care.

Someone, whether it's the owner, government, or neighborhood association, needs to begin investigating the enterprise creation potential of this site.

Get the owner excited about the possibility of new things, or at least fearful of code enforcement if he or she is determined to be pessimistic about the economic outlook.

If buildings need to be demolished, work with the owner to try to obtain agreement on this point. Use code enforcement to force demolition if possible. If not, possibly you can work with the owner to obtain a subsidy for demolition funding from governmental, charitable, or neighborhood sources.

Involve the municipal government in determining an overall plan for the site, which would enable possible governmental financing incentives such as tax increment financing to be offered.

Work with the local chamber of commerce, if you have one, and any state economic prosperity agencies, railroad or utility new business departments, or a small business or entrepreneurship support center if your problem building and site is a small one. If there's an angle for a commercial realtor, try to engage the attention of one.

Now we need to state the obvious, because some neighborhoods miss this point. When you're going to try to attract redevelopment, you need a developer.

So if the current property owner is not a developer, defined a person who can conceptualize a project, supervise architects and a construction process, and market a property successfully, you need to find one.

If the current owner wants to sell the property, you can disregard his or her tastes in developers, but of course that owner must be very involved in attracting and selecting a developer if ownership is to be retained.

After you have a developer interested in redeveloping the property, begin working with the local government to get them excited about the project. Local and state incentives, and some federal ones, may exist.

If part of the project will include housing, read about mixed-use techniques and affordable housing.

You'll need your local government on board, though, if you want to obtain state or federal credits or participation in the project. You also might need tax increment financing or some other type of tax abatement to make the deal work. Don't by-pass local government; this could be a big human relations mistake.

When you have completed your environmental assessment, with the help of a professional, you have a complete handle on your zoning situation and what it permits, and you have the strong support of your local government and any neighborhood organizations in the area, that's when all professionals and advocates involved need a reasonable game plan.

And in today's times, it needs to be creative. Not simply because the economic cycle is at a low point, to say the least, but also because even when times were better, the competition is stiff. Every city has numerous opportunities to re-purpose sites that have become dilapidated, abandoned, or economically obsolete, and each of them presents challenges.

The easiest projects already have been picked up by the private market. So if you've been stuck with a site for several years, be realistic about its probable lack of market appeal.

Similarities and Differences Between Previously Built Sites and New Construction

Re-use of previous building sites is likely to be more expensive than construction on what is known as greenfields, or land that hasn't been used for urban purposes before (at least in recent memory).

The reasons for this greater expense are the high probability that some type of environmental assessment will be needed, more difficult regulatory hurdles because older configurations of land and buildings don't fit neatly into today's regulations, and the possibility that infrastructure (anything from streets to water mains to sewers to street lighting) will have to be rebuilt along with the buildings.

Rehabilitating buildings is often more expensive than new construction simply because of the unique challenges they present in terms of a lack of standard sizes and conditions of building members.

A builder can scrape off a site and be ready to go within days. A contractor dealing with a previous building site may have to haul off industrial waste or left-behind litter and solid waste, deal with the regulatory implications of brownfields, demolish buildings, remove rubble, and then be more careful with site preparation.

Particularly if the site formerly was an industrial campus or some type of complex where not all underground utilities may be known, the contractors have to be more cautious than the developer in simply preparing for new construction.

In a regulatory sense, the new use might require a new configuration of the lot or lots, with re-subdivision a possibility.

Zoning may have to be changed, or zoning variances might have to be sought.

These are the background reasons that some think re-using land is more difficult.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Redevelopment

Be aware that you may have what are called brownfields issues in your community.

If you (and you is whoever is advocating for the re-use of a site) do not have a complete history of the site, now is the time to begin gathering that information. Rely on historical governmental records or maybe the local history buff. You need to learn what types of activities were conducted on the property and whether there is any possibility that the building or the soils will be considered contaminated.

Former service stations, garages, and dry cleaning establishments will be considered clean-up sites, so don't underestimate this process because the site you're interested in wasn't ever a factory.

A brownfield by definition is a property on which the possible presence of contaminants, pollution, or hazardous or toxic wastes is suspected.

Even the thought of brownfields issues discourages redevelopers, so you need to learn about the topic if you're serious about understanding why your community doesn't attract more action.

Deconstruction Versus Demolition

Another consideration that a local government or neighborhood should pursue once you have located an interested developer is talking that developer into using sustainable building practices.

For instance, "deconstruction," in which there is a careful disassembly of the building allowing salvage and recycling or re-use of most materials, would be a wonderfully earth-friendly thing to do.

Old wooden beams and structural members may be refinished beautifully, and unique pieces of glass, marble, stone, carved wood, or other materials may be able to be salvaged. Depending on the market, steel beams and such may offer a good resale value. Read more about recycling and re-use of building and demolition materials here.

Marketing a Site for Redevelopment

We are describing this process very idealistically, in which you proceed effortlessly from concern about a site, through convincing your local government to participate actively in the redevelopment process, to selecting a developer, and on to determining and executing a game plan.

Rarely does it go this way.

So when you start to see the process slow down, it's another time to consult the smartest marketing gurus you can find in economic development, commercial or residential real estate, historic preservation, and green building.

Read good Internet sources and books to pick up ideas, and talk to neighboring towns, network, and go to conferences and meetings to the extent your budget and time constraints will allow.

Borrow shamelessly from other places. You can't afford to burden yourself with thinking you have to be totally original, when you're dealing with the threat of a site that begs for redevelopment in your neighborhood.

Need for Infill Construction

As you're planning a project, remember it's possible not only to re-use buildings that may be in existence, but also to add "infill" buildings that would enhance the bottom line for the development.

In many cases large previously used sites formerly were industrial sites, so you may have some large expanses of yard that were used for outdoor storage. You can either turn those into attractive open space or add more buildings to bring the development to critical mass.

If you decide to infill, obviously you need a practical architect on the project who can complement existing architecture without being a slave to it. You need to strongly consider mixed-use development for its energy conservation potential and transportation convenience.

An exciting place is created by complexity of some sort. If you're a small town, you need to be an unpredictable small town. So if you have an old cotton gin that you're redeveloping into housing, make it slightly different from the rest of your town, without clashing. In cases such as this, you might want to try graduated density zoning.

Graduated density zoning is keeping the zoning on the periphery of a site at the same approximate density and intensity as the adjacent property, but then as one progresses toward the center of the site, gradually increasing the density. This is a way to add density while minimizing neighborhood objections.

The same principle applies to adding an infill building or two when you are rehabilitating buildings on an existing site. Be careful about adding them at the edge of the property, where opposition is more likely.

But if there are interior areas on the site that are not needed for parking and such, build more. Even if you think you need all that empty ground for surface parking, reconsider whether a parking structure wouldn't allow you to add density that would be good for the community overall. The expense of the parking structure often can be justified on the basis of the greater revenue from developing an additional building.

Downtowns Need Continuous Reinvention

Downtown revitalization is virtually a non-stop process. While many of the principles discussed on this page apply, the many special considerations involved in successfully updating a town center are described on the linked page.

Waterfront Potential

There's nothing like a long view over water for the "wow" factor in a city or town. See our waterfront planning page if your town sits on a stream, river, lake, or ocean.

We've even created a place on our site where you can upload photos and a short description of your stream clean-up, so please see what others are doing. (Rivers included of course!)

Dead Mall Solutions

Shopping center re-use is yet another specific challenge. It's clear that we've built too many shopping centers already, so some towns won't make these centers viable again.

You need the many ideas on the linked page to help you, whether you plan to struggle along and continue to work with the premise that you need retail, or not. If you decide on another use, all the information on this page becomes very relevant to you.

Of course, many strip centers are past their prime as well. One of the better ideas for recycling these centers is to add a row of buildings close to the street. Let's call these shallow buildings for small shops liner buildings

Then the space between the old strip center and the new building line at the street becomes a courtyard or perhaps a revamped parking lot using new Low Impact Development (LID) techniques to handle stormwater runoff. The old strip center then might become housing or offices, while a smaller amount of attractive and supportable retail is located along the street frontage.

> Redevelopment

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Abandoned Factories

abandoned shopping center needing redevelopment
Shopping Center Re-Use

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Downtown Improvement

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Waterfront Clean-Up

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