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Abandoned Factories Present a Challenge for Communities

industrial landscape including vacant manufacturing plant

Creative re-use of abandoned factories in your community can mean that an empty industrial building or complex for which there is no real estate market can live again as lofts, artist studios, unusual retail space, or offices for a marketing firm or other creative business.

Listing industrial property for sale doesn't mean that a buyer will appear, especially in areas where an abundant supply means only those spaces with a location advantage have a chance of being purchased.

Pretend that you  are the typical community worried about abandoned factories. You have several, development is stalled in your area anyway, and your once prosperous manufacturing facility rapidly is becoming an eyesore. What should you do?


• Contact the owner(s), ask questions, and listen. Try to interest them in working with an aggressive and knowledgeable real estate agent who is tough-minded but hard-working. If you anticipate the owner will need encouragement to find an agent, after perhaps giving up hope, have a list of suggested agents ready.

If you sense that they might be asking too much for the property, have some recent sales data at your fingertips. Again, preparation will be useful. Ask enough questions to determine if the building and site probably will be classified as brownfields.

• If you represent the municipal government, consider whether the city should buy the abandoned factories and tear them down, or if you're in a true urban environment, turn it over to some artists to play with.

I know it's a tough budget time right now but if you're in an environment that might be attractive for other business investment, you can't afford to allow your negatives to scare people away from thinking about the positive.

Hopefully your city still has good credit and might be able to secure a loan rather than having to issue revenue bonds. (Bonds aren't a bad choice, but they just are a bit more expensive way to borrow money.)

• Also if you are from the city, you might suggest casually that you could consider eminent domain, also known as condemnation, if the abandoned factories or site are not kept in reasonable repair and kept secured, trash-free, pest-free, and graffiti-free. If you are a community group, you simply say that you will talk to your city or town government about this possibility.

• The local government should attempt to secure funding for what is called a Phase I environmental assessment if there is any potential for the site to be a brownfield.

Usually if a citizen would use the term abandoned factories, there's some brownfield potential. The Phase I checks into the history of the site and produces some advice on probabilities of brownfield liability.

(Yes, there's a Phase II, and that's a scientific analysis including sampling soil or materials that is required before developing a site found probably to be contaminated or perceived to be contaminated during the Phase I assessment.)

Solutions for Abandoned Factories

First of all, consider the fact that recycling buildings through embracing the notion of advanced manufacturing and training your unemployed population through a local community college could be a viable solution.

However, you may find that adequate career training already is available in your community.  Alternatively, if your workforce is uneducated and doesn't show the potential to complete community college coursework, you may need to consider other land use options:

• Aggressively consider how ownership could be transferred to a non-profit organization. Some of them would be resourceful in using it. This is viable only if your potential brownfield situation isn't too serious of course.

• Study our page on adaptive re-use in general. Some surprisingly interesting housing, for example, has been built within the shell of an old manufacturing facility with great windows, maple floors, interesting machinery or products remaining, and the like.

• If all else fails, disguise the site. You say, "But it's huge; it's in the middle of town." OK, but can you fence it and have the kids or some artists paint a mural on the fence?

If there's a concrete wall already, paint it, put ceramic tile art on it, or grout broken plates from the neighborhood onto it for your own community form of outsider art. If you can't find viable artists, maybe you can fasten some large vinyl banners with grommets onto the fence.

If it's impractical to fence, or it would need a fence and you can't afford one, consider landscaping. Are there tall shrubs that grow quickly in your area? Bamboo can grow really fast in even in the Midwest, you know. But of course the bamboo example reminds us to say you need to check out the down side of any plantings you propose. Some types of bamboo spread like wildfire.

If you can't disguise abandoned factories with landscaping or artful fences, distract attention away from the site. Maybe you need to take the drastic measure of creating a dead end street before the road accesses the site.

This doesn't remedy the nuisances that foot traffic can create, and it makes for an even scarier environment for crime and negative activity, but consider whether your environment could be suitable for a solution such as this.

Distract with positive new development or public art nearby to encourage foot and car traffic to follow another path.

Finally, our section on beautification and overlapping page on abandoned buildings in general might provide more ideas.


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