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Turning Failed Commercial Properties Into Parks

• December 28, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Turning foreclosed commercial properties into park networks could put people to work, raise real estate values and promote wise redevelopment.

In the language of urbanism, “greenfields” usually means rural land at the metropolitan edge, where suburbia metastasizes. “Brownfields” are former industrial sites that could be redeveloped once they are cleaned of pollution. “Greyfields” — picture vast empty parking lots — refer to moribund shopping centers. Recently another such locution was coined: “redfields,” as in red ink, for underperforming, underwater and foreclosed commercial real estate.

Redfields describe a financial condition, not a development type. So brownfields and greyfields are often redfields, as are other distressed, outmoded or undesirable built places: failed office and apartment complexes, vacant retail strips and big-box stores, newly platted subdivisions that died aborning in the crash.

Now comes “Redfields to Greenfields,” a promising initiative aimed at reducing the huge supply of stricken commercial properties while simultaneously revitalizing the areas around them. (It’s a catchy title, if imprecise because it’s about re-establishing greenfields within developed areas, not about doing anything to natural or agricultural acreage at the urban margins.) The plan, in essence, is this: Determine where defunct properties might fit a metropolitan green-space strategy; acquire and clear them; then make them into parks and conservation areas, some permanent and some only land-banked until the market wants them again.

January-February 2011 Miller-McCune While it addresses the long-term challenges of greening cities and reversing sprawl, this idea is a response to immediate dilemmas: the oversupply, devaluation and abandonment of commercial real estate; the destabilization of banks by mounting commercial mortgage defaults; and persistent unemployment. “Regional planning efforts look at 20 years out, 50 years out, 100 years. But we need something now,” says Kevin Caravati, a senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. With support from the City Parks Alliance, a national advocacy group of parks professionals, conservancies and citizen groups, the institute developed an analytic methodology, focusing initially on metropolitan Atlanta.

The goal was to draft “a plan for how do we address the physical assets that remain behind” across a metro area after businesses fail and mortgages are foreclosed, Caravati explains. When a bank writes off its loss, he adds, “You say, ‘Well, the loan’s taken care of.’ Swell. Who’s going to take care of this 300,000-square-foot ugly piece of junk that’s sitting in our community?”

Redfields-to-greenfields studies have been completed for Cleveland, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. More are under way in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix and the Savannah-Hilton Head area. Implementing these plans would require considerable funding, of course, for buying distressed properties and hiring workers to demolish existing buildings and build park amenities. Advocates look to the federal government to commit already approved but never allocated money from existing economic stabilization and development sources such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The concept was presented at a White House meeting last June, where Derek Douglas, special assistant to the president for urban affairs on the Domestic Policy Council, identified the administration’s urban-policy concerns as economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. He declared, “If you take these three broad policy goals and you overlay them on redfields to greenfields, it’s a perfect match.”

While essential, government money is foreseen as only one source of funding, says Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a metropolitan planning organization, and chief operating officer of R2GA, the entity created to carry out the plan in metro Atlanta. “The second is what we call social capital — local philanthropic organizations who are interested in making a contribution towards green space.” The third envisioned source is private equity investors, a possibility that illuminates a signal innovation of the redfields-to-greenfields proposition.

Only some of the acquired land would become permanent greenfields, restored as wetlands, for example, or developed as parks. Adjacent tracts would be cleared but held only temporarily as public open space — used as playing fields or picnic grounds, say, which require little capital improvement. Eventually, it is assumed, the market for such property will rebound. “We would have a managed fund, in a not-for-profit, that would oversee the funds from those three sources, and then would eventually sell that [temporary greenfield] property into private developers’ hands,” Leithead explains. The investor “buys a piece of real estate that has a seriously depressed value today.” Just the creation of an adjacent new park will increase the value of a tract of land. The redfields-to-greenfields organization will also arrange to have it rezoned for higher, more urban uses consistent with the master plan for the area — a low-cost change that also enhances the property’s value.

So the former strip mall and parking lot might become mid-rise apartments above shops; the terminated car dealership site could become an entertainment and restaurant complex. Leithead says, “When the guy goes to sell it in five years and recoup his investment, he has a piece of property that’s worth several times [more]” than it likely would have brought without government intervention.

“At that point we propose to repay the government and philanthropic investors,” he adds, “or ask them to leave the money in the deal to roll it into future investments and cover the operating and maintenance of the park component.” With that endowment for its ongoing operation, the park would finally be deeded over to the local park system.

“It’s about getting those toxic properties off the books of the banks, but at the same time it reduces the amount of land that’s zoned commercial,” says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, who helped formulate a redfields-to-greenfields plan for Miami-Dade County. “The initiative is extremely clever because it also makes the supply that remains more valuable.”

Recycling commercial properties into green space has occurred before. In downtown Syracuse, N.Y., several empty storefront buildings on a main street were recently demolished; the property will become a half-acre park — until the market can support its redevelopment for retail and office use. In Columbus, Ohio, a failed downtown mall was dismantled to become a park surrounded by new residential development. In a St. Paul, Minn., suburb, a dead strip mall was rehabilitated to its original condition as a wetland. But unlike these one-off efforts, redfields to greenfields starts at the metropolitan level to map numerous stagnating properties whose transformation can support comprehensive regional green-space and redevelopment plans.

Miami-Dade County is one no-brainer candidate for a redfields-to-greenfields makeover. Real estate has always been a major engine of South Florida’s economy; the region participated extravagantly in the recent boom, and experienced a correspondingly spectacular bust. Now Miami-Dade ranks among the very worst places nationally for troubled properties, failed banks and unemployed people, and is also quite low in park acreage per resident. But other factors position it especially well for a redfields-to-greenfields effort.

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Miami-Dade Neighborhood Conversion

Click this photo to see illustrations showing the process of converting a vacant lot in Miami-Dade County into a neighborhood park that serves as a catalyst for the redevelopment of surrounding properties and the creation of higher density, affordable homes. (Dover Kohl & Partners)

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Florida has long supported both intensive regional planning and acquisition of conservation lands (although funds for that have lately dried to a trickle). An established urban growth boundary for the county imposes limits on development toward the Everglades in the west and the agricultural area to the south, so thinking was already oriented toward infill. An Open Space System Master Plan, shepherded by the county parks and recreation department, was enthusiastically adopted just two years ago.

Recently, a group of experts used the model developed at Georgia Tech to come up with a redfields-to-greenfields scheme for Miami-Dade. To a remarkable extent, their findings coincide with the Open Space Master Plan. But Maria Nardi, chief of planning for the parks department, points out that the master plan assumed a 50-year timeline. “This has changed our perception,” she says. “Now it is doable in a much shorter time.”

In Miami-Dade, redfields to greenfields will target investment toward creating transit-oriented parks around stations on the Metrorail line, which runs mainly north-south; greenways along the Miami River and the drainage canals that link Everglades National Park on the city’s west with Biscayne National Park on the coast; and smaller neighborhood parks throughout the residential parts of the county that lack them, tied by paths and boulevards into the larger park system.

Adding a park can turn a rail station into a destination and activity center. Acquisition of adjoining properties can extend fingers of green space into surrounding areas. When new housing, commercial space or public facilities like libraries are needed, they can be built on the “temporary greenfield,” within steps of transit. As to the east-west greenways, some of which already exist, they “are linear, along the canals,” says John Bowers, a landscape architect with the parks department. But the chance to purchase adjacent land “would expand our space visually, and in how we use it. It could reach a neighborhood we couldn’t reach before. Maybe it also serves as a flood-plain mitigation area, and as a community gathering spot, and a space to get off the pathway and rest.”

Planning for the Miami River greenway was initiated in 1998 but became a victim of its own success. There are some 300 acres of moribund industrial real estate bordering that long-channelized waterway, but the prospect of its becoming a park sparked a buying frenzy. “Prices went so high that we could no longer come in and work for conservation,” Brenda McClymonds of The Trust for Public Land says. Now that values have fallen, redfields to greenfields could restart the project.

Redfields to greenfields is not a one-size-fits-all-cities initiative. In Wilmington, Del., for example, the focus is on the city’s west side, where there is a concentration of distressed property and a paucity of green space. A $22 million investment there, it is estimated, could create 300 jobs and ensure that every resident in the targeted area lives within 500 feet of a park. Planners in Denver figure that $2.5 billion could remove 6,650 acres of real estate from the market, double the current size of the park system — with a concentration on transforming disused industrial sites lining the South Platte River — and create 30,000 jobs.

In any case, “there needs to be a big idea behind it. It can’t just be scattershot,” the University of Miami’s Plater-Zyberk cautions. And not every metro area has a green-space plan already in place. For some, arriving at a redfields-to-greenfields strategy that optimizes investment for long-term value to the city, and not just return to investors, could be a challenge.

Beyond that challenge is the troublesome potential for corruption and cronyism, which frequently accompanies infrastructure and redevelopment projects fueled by big government dollars. Especially in development-driven cities like Atlanta and Miami — but to some degree, in any city — developers can have cozy, if not downright illegal relationships with the government officials who dole out funds and project approvals — or who, in the case of a redfields-to-greenfields effort, might name the board members of the nonprofit organization that will decide which distressed properties to buy at what prices, what improvements to make with the public money and whom to resell the parcels to later.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a redfields-to-greenfields trend is the availability of funding. “There’s a lot of concern about federal government spending; states are cash-strapped,” Georgia Tech’s Caravati says. “But the higher up we went in government, they got it right away. They’re used to dealing with mega-billion-dollar programs. And what’s more interesting to us is that we haven’t heard any other significant solutions put on the table to address the commercial real estate problem. This is one that has held up.”

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Jonathan Lerner
Jonathan Lerner writes on architecture, urbanism, art, design and travel for national magazines and is a communications consultant for clients in the design industries. He is the author of several novels, including "Alex Underground," set in the radical underground of the 1970s, when Lerner was a founding member of the Weather Underground. He lives in New York City.

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