Trash To Treasure

Transforming Brownfields Into Playing Fields and Parks

By Kelli Anderson

Brown is apparently the new green. From world-class parks like Millennium Park in Chicago to Freshkills Park in New York, such venues formed from former landfills, quarries and waste-contaminated industrial sites, have become spectacular recreational spaces for the communities that once shunned them.

Brownfields (areas once utilized for commercial or industrial use that have redevelopment potential) that have been transformed into parkland is actually nothing new. One of the earliest parks to find its humble beginnings as a landfill dates back to 1916 when Rainier Playfield in Seattle was created from Rainier Dump.

But a lot has changed since the early days of repurposing these derelict spaces in terms of techniques and regulations to rehabilitate them, ways to pay for their cleanup, and the realization that they can revitalize a limping community, boost a local economy and make the environment and its people healthier in the process. No wonder public support to convert brownfields into playing fields is at an all-time high. Or that park districts can't seem to sign up fast enough to acquire them and make use of them, with some estimates suggesting that transformed landfills-to-parks now run in the tens of thousands of acres.

Economic Gains

One such brownfield project, nearing completion slated for December 2013, is transforming 700 acres of what has been called "the dirtiest site in Canada" into a public park. When a 100-year old former steel mill and coke production plant in Sydney, Nova Scotia (one of the largest in North America), closed 10 years ago, it left in its wake tar ponds, acres of contaminated soil, water and waste, and left the community it founded bereft of jobs.

Today, with $400 million invested in cleanup by the federal government, and in cooperation with the province, many environmental organizations and local citizens, this site is once again breathing new economic life into the heart of the community that was originally created around it.

"The remediation process in itself has brought jobs to the community," said Gary Sorge, senior principal with Stantec, the design firm creating the yet-to-be-named park, about a cleanup process that was initially implemented by another agency. "And they (the residents) will also be involved in the construction of the new park." With property values already quadrupling in some of the most economically distressed areas of the city, it seems many anticipate the long-term benefits this will bring to Sydney and the surrounding towns.

When complete, the park will have greenways, trails, areas restored for wildlife and new plant life habitats, active and passive recreational areas, an outdoor amphitheater, sports fields, playgrounds, skating pond and spray park. Woven into its design will also be themes of origin, expressing the community's pride of place and history, telling the story of the plant that gave rise to its residents and using its relics, like an interactive, restored rail car, an enormous smelting ladle and interpretive art pieces created by local artists to pass on its story and that of the people who used to work there.

Due Diligence

But how are such sites transformed in the first place? Regardless of whether it is a pre-'80s landfill stocked with today's no-nos (like lead paint and batteries), a former chemical industrial site or a newer landfill sans toxic material, nothing ensures successful transformation like thorough planning and due diligence.

"You can always hire a committee, but do due diligence so you won't have any surprises once you get to the ground," said Chris Kastelic, senior vice president and principal with Sink Combs Dethlefs, architects who updated a former-dump-turned-community center into the LEED Gold-certified and award-winning Northside Aztlan Community Center, in Fort Collins, Colo., in 2005.

"Get good information ahead of the process, leverage your resources to make smart decisions and talk to the right people. (We had environmental consultants as a part of the problem-solving method.) You need to tackle it head on with hard data about the realities of the challenge rather than speaking in just general terms."

In the case of Aztlan, originally intended to be a LEED Silver-certification project, such diligence and good information combined with savvy planning and problem-solving became a budget-making Gold certification and the evidence the city later used to insist that other projects should aim for no less than Gold, as well.

Early Community Input

Such hard data, such as thorough soil testing, doing topography and taking inventory of what existing facilities can be utilized, should also include getting good information from the community. And the earlier, the better.

"Planning started early on, even before they took ownership of the site, planning out what facilities could be utilized," said Steve Konters, principal with the Hitchcock Design Group in Naperville, Ill., about the Three Oaks Recreation Area in Crystal Lake, Ill. "Having as much information as you can and involving the public to a high degree is essential. By incorporating their input early, you set yourself up for better public support when it's time to move the project forward."

And once information has been gathered, don't be shy about communicating the benefits (it helps to present several), as well as the limitations some brownfield sites may bring to the table. Communities need to know what impediments exist and about the specific problems a project will face if they are going to be able to effectively manage a redeveloped site.

"Include the public in the design of the park with a lot of input," said Roger Leblanc, engineer with Stantec, on the Sydney steel mill park project. "And if there are things you can't do, explain why; don't just tell them what you want to do. You should want to build it not just because you have a certain budget, but because you really want them to use it. You want to find out what's missing in the area and what people would use."

Challenges—the Mother of Invention

Such brownfield challenges, however, like capping off contaminated soils beneath new layers of topsoil, mean that traditional construction methods sometimes give way to more creative solutions to keep contaminants contained and the costs down. "Everything you dig has to be sealed and taken to controlled landfills," Kastelic said about the labor-intensive process. "So as architects, if we're smart, the best thing is not to have to cart off soil. Leave as much undisturbed a possible to minimize costs. That ultimately led to our solutions."

With the additional challenge of keeping the original 1973 center open to the public while new construction (that eventually replaced it) took place, keeping contaminated soils contained was doubly important. The solution was to build three to four feet above grade, pouring up to the foundations, and implementing several hundred helical piers screwed down to the bedrock with two-foot caissons capped with concrete.

This kind of kid-gloved approach to contaminated soils has been true of the Sydney project as well. "Everything in the new park and buildings has to be sensitive to what's underneath the cap," Sorge said about a remediation process that has taken 15 years, from conception to planning to implementation. "From foundations to light poles, placement of everything has to be careful so that you don't compromise the cap material below."

Other issues frequently encountered by brownfields include settling of debris beneath landfills and the emission of methane gas. In some cases, landfills have areas that have not been compromised and can be built on with no difficulty; other times construction must devise ways to stabilize settling layers and find ways to capture, transport and safely release methane gas.

In the case of the Northside Aztlan Community Center, both settling landfill material and methane gas presented significant challenges in updating the original building. "When we came to the project as a design-build, most of the cleanup, testing and environmental assessment had been completed through part of an EPA superfund, a federal cleanup effort for the site," Kastelic said, "but the soil was still giving off methane."

To capture the gas and redirect it, the center was built on a void with a perforated piping system to collect the gas beneath the building and vent it out through the roof where it is dispersed into the atmosphere.

Jewels in the Crown

But although there are indisputable challenges to these sites, there are also indisputable benefits. As more communities plan ahead, even creating landfills with the intention of one day turning them into a recreational space, they are able to use the landfills to pay for the future park and are even harnessing resulting methane gas, selling it or using it to offset onsite costs.

In Portland, Ore., the 2,000-acre Smith-Bybee Wetlands Natural Area earns more than $100,000 a year from methane collected from a former waste disposal site. The methane, piped to a nearby cement company, is creating revenue for the park district and is helping to pay for the costs associated with the transition from landfill to public park.

In the case of Cully Park, another example of Portland's ingenuity, land for the 25-acre park was free, with all closure and conversion costs paid for by a per-ton garbage disposal fee charged by the solid waste department. And while free land may not be typical of most brownfield-turned-park success stories, cheap land certainly is, as well as the fact that most of these sites are located in densely populated areas where large, open space is a premium.

Perhaps no greater example of this exists than in the soon-to-be opened first phase of Freshkills Park in New York City. Being called a symbol of renewal and touted as the poster child for the ultimate landfill makeover, Freshkills, once the largest landfill in the world covering more than 2,000 acres, will be transformed into five parks. The parks, each with its own distinct programming, will include wetlands, large natural settings and all kinds of active and passive recreational spaces, from horseback riding trails and soccer fields to fishing and lakeside restaurants.

The site, which will be almost three times larger than Central Park in New York City, provides an enormous amount of land squarely situated in one of the world's largest cities and will be proof positive, when completed, that landfills can become jewels in a city crown.

In addition, the methane gas produced from the site that will be phased in over the next 30 years is estimated to produce $12 million a year that will be used to furnish energy for 22,000 homes in the area.

Another benefit is access to existing infrastructure or even building materials on site, saving money in ways the average site could not.

For the creation of Three Oaks Park, previously an old quarry, the challenges of steep slopes and high erosion meant a lot of out-of-the-box thinking resulting in fire walls and rain gardens and native landscaping to maintain water quality for the park's newly formed lakes.

However, it also meant taking advantage of the sand, gravel and stone already on site from the quarry's abandoned materials, saving money in the process, as well as earning kudos and thanks from those eager to reduce our carbon footprint.

"It was a challenge but benefited us financially in being able to generate their own sand and gravel on site to use for trails and a road base and for paving the parking lot as well as creating beach areas, but from an environmental standpoint, it avoided having to use other greenfields or quarries," Konters said of the $14-million park that today provides its residents a host of activities such as boating, fishing, picnic areas, trails, beaches, a lake house with concessions, playgrounds and a spray park.

In the case of the Sydney project, even a 10-story eyesore of slag, a byproduct of the steel-making process accumulated over a century of the mill's existence, proved to be an environmental and aesthetic asset. The slag is being mined and quarried in the new construction for the lower layers of what will become landforms three and four meters high, capped with healthy topsoil to create visual year-round interest. As the slag-mountain recedes, new gardens are being formed. It's a win-win.

For some, the height of such "mount trashmores" (above-ground landfills and waste materials that become virtual mini-mountains on the landscape) becomes an asset. The planners of the future City View Park in Virginia Beach, Va., as well as members of the Milwaukee County Park commission, for example, are seriously considering turning their towering landmasses into ski ramps.

And then there is the boost to the local economy. In Crystal Lake, the economy had wreaked havoc on its prime retail corridors, with many vacant storefronts a common sign of hard times. After the park's soft opening last fall, however, the local economy is already experiencing a comeback, thanks to the attraction of more visitors and interested developers who recognize the business potential of the new recreational area.

Counting the Cost

But even with all the benefits, there's no denying that depending on the needs of the site, preparation costs can be significant, depending on a wide variety of factors like topography, availability of materials and cover design. Securing funding for such projects comes in many forms, from loans, grants, tax credits and more. Thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are many incentives to encourage those wanting to transform their derelict spaces into recreational ones.

One example of such financial aid comes in the form of The Brownfields Tax Incentive, part of the The Taxpayer Relief Act passed in 1997 to help offset costs associated with brownfield cleanup, site monitoring and maintenance to encourage business development, provided that the deduction of those costs is taken the same year as they are incurred.

(See for more information.)

Then, of course, there is the EPA's program for brownfields and land revitalization, a cleanup program that provides direct funding for brownfield assessment, loans and training that, in cooperation with other federal and state agencies, can bear a great deal of the financial burden on a project. Nonprofit organizations, too, like The Trust for Public Land, Groundwork USA and the Center for Creative Land Recycling also help communities fill in the funding gaps.

And then there are regulatory developments that are making the process a little easier. Many states, for example, are passing laws that are easing restrictions and decreasing the expenses (especially for park use) that once made smaller brownfield properties less likely contenders.

Of course, there is also the good old-fashioned fund-raiser. With brownfields gaining recognition for their power to economically revitalize entire towns and cities, as well as to improve the overall quality of life for local citizens, donations can often be raised from two unlikely bedfellows: conservationists and local businesses and developers who recognize the value of transforming brownfield trash to treasure.

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