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 demolished to make way for the new.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, it may be explained best by giving a range of examples.  Redevelopment might mean a new mixed-use project that will reduce traffic congestion and give the neighborhood a boost. Or it might be a gradual downtown revitalization program consisting of both rehabilitation of existing properties and addition of with new infill buildings to renew 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 from simplest to most complex is something like this:

•An existing building or complex is refurbished and the land and building 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.

•Clean-up and then construction occurs on vacant land formerly part of an industrial yard that contaminated the soils.

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 faces the problem of a well-defined area of under-performing real estate. For example, Granville Island, actually a peninsula extending into False Creek in Vancouver, was once a failing 37 acre industrial area. Now it's fashionable and fun, with a public markets, museums, abundant arts, a boutique area, and other cool things.

Or the definition of redevelopment could expand to encompass decisions about what to do with entire sections of a shrinking city.  Decision makers and activists in such cities need to become experts in the topic of this page!


The Process for Occupied 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 research the current real estate market.

If the market is brisk for the existing land use, the simplest solution will be to renovate and upgrade building exteriors and interiors to the extent necessary to be competitive. Tenants may need to change to fit the needs, tastes, and pocketbooks of the neighborhood or surrounding market area.

If the market for the existing use is poor or mediocre, 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 zoning and land uses, at least he or she deserves to know if there is a lively market for the expected future use.


Redeveloping Vacant Land and Buildings

Now 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 owner is wondering what to do. Especially long time owners sometimes become pessimistic and therefore passive about managing land, waiting for some "better market" to come their way.

Sometimes the municipal government is more concerned than the owner, or the city may have become the owner through tax foreclosure or some other process.

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 economic development potential of this site.

If you are the city or the neighborhood, work on getting 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.  Be sure to investigate the possibility that he or she is not doing anything because of lack of financial capability, given the magnitude of the problem.

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 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 attract the attention of one.

Now we need to state the obvious, because some neighborhoods miss this point. When you want to generate redevelopment, you need a developer.




So if the current owner is not a developer, defined as a person who can conceptualize a project, supervise architects and a construction process, and market a property successfully, you need to find one.  In fact, a good developer often can help an owner understand the potential of a property better than a neighborhood group can do this work.

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.

Some projects will be very difficult, so your process of finding a developer willing to work with a particular parcel or parcels of land will tell you a lot about the problems that lie ahead.  But the right developer for the situation will take it all in stride and understand that partnerships with the public sector will be necessary to address extreme situations.

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 fully 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 would 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. 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.


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.

So what are the advantages of redevelopment then?  There are several:

  • Keeping land uses economically viable is critical to keeping up property values on adjacent properties.
  • Re-use of land adjacent to other developed land is important for preventing all the economic, environmental, and social ills of urban sprawl.
  • Older buildings offer the potential for wonderful character, quirkiness, and interest.  As a result, they can command premium sale prices and rent when fully rehabilitated to fit today's tastes and market.
  • The community may better be able to connect with its history if some aspects of it are preserved.  Preservation often requires a change of land or building use.

Be Prepared for the Difficulties of Working with Brownfields

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 developers, so you need to learn about the topic if you're serious about understanding why your community doesn't attract more action.

Former service stations, garages, and dry cleaning establishments will be considered clean-up sites, so don't underestimate this process because the site of interest wasn't ever a factory.  Your shopping center you would like to demolish partially may be full of asbestos.

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.


Working with Districts

Up until now, we have been describing a process with one owner involved, or maybe two or three.  However, two important types of long-term projects typically have many property owners involved:  downtowns and waterfronts.

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.

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.  These projects may be even more complex than downtown because the owners involved often have little sense of kinship with one another, and the range of land uses may be more disparate than downtown too.

Of course waterfront work goes hand in hand with clean water, so if the political will or vision for waterfront planning is lacking, you may start with the volunteer clean-up approach.  We've 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 are 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; many present big challenges. We just added a whole page on redoing a strip mall.  One of the better ideas for recycling these centers is to add a row of buildings close to the street. These shallow buildings allowing for small shops are called 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.


Marketing a Site

We are describing this process very idealistically, in which you proceed effortlessly from concern about a site, to engaging with a willing owner, 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 relevant to your particular situation, and talk to neighboring towns, network, and go to conferences and meetings to the extent your budget and time constraints will allow.

When searching for ideas for re-use of a property, borrow shamelessly from what has worked in 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 a new life. In fact, our adaptive re-use page has some great lists of possible changes of land use.


Need for Infill Construction

As you're planning a project, remember it's possible not only to re-use existing buildings, but also to add "infill" buildings that would enhance the bottom line for the development.  Small downtowns or commercial areas may need additional buildings, and many times struggling shopping centers can be rescued through the addition of infill housing. Mixed-use development offers energy conservation potential and transportation convenience.

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.

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.

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.


Summary

All in all, make some strategic additions and subtractions, re-imagine how spaces and buildings can be used, be ready to tackle the tough challenges by enlisting public and private sector partners, and get set for plenty of work but potentially plenty of reward.

> Redevelopment



Sub-Topics:
abandoned factory
Abandoned Factories

abandoned shopping center needing redevelopment
Shopping Center Re-Use

strip shopping center redevelopment
Strip Mall Solutions

downtown streetscape
Downtown Improvement

waterfront Baltimore
Waterfront Clean-Up

factory with rusty pipes
Brownfields

Click Title for Additional Pages in This Heading:

Shrinking Cities

Suburban Retrofit



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