In an obtuse triangle at the far western corner of downtown Boise, hemmed in by freeway and river and surrounded by cyclone fencing, sits a former petroleum storage yard. From the 1920s through about 2009, it was the Northwest base of operations for Goodman Oil Company, which owned gas stations in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found 35 chronic underground storage tank violations on Goodman’s properties and issued more than $736,000 in fines against the company — the largest tank fine ever issued in the region.
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Until this summer, the Goodman Oil Property along West Fairview in Boise was rundown and abandoned, thought to be highly polluted and a general thorn in the side of city officials intent on crafting a recreation and technology corridor just west of downtown.
Today, the Goodman property is scraped clean, under new, local ownership and deeded with a certificate from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality promising not to sue and providing protection to any lenders who may acquire the property in the future.
So far, the reclamation of the Goodman Oil site in Boise is a textbook case of brownfield redevelopment: a property troubled with both real and perceived pollution has been cleaned to an agreed upon standard—future owners will not be able to use groundwater at the site—and cleared for prime development at the vertex of a new, proposed western gateway to downtown Boise.
Goodman sits at the southwest corner of the newly created 30th Street Urban Renewal District, just west of downtown Boise. The district starts at State Street and the newly aligned Whitewater Park Boulevard at 30th Street, a wide thoroughfare that diverts downtown-bound traffic off of State Street, past what will soon become Esther Simplot Park and a roiling whitewater park on the Boise River.
Boise State’s Public Policy Center, Department of Community and Regional Planning and Center for Idaho History and Politics supported the research for this article, an excerpt of a report on brownfields in the 30th Street area that is due out later this fall.
City plans call for an ambitious mix of housing and technology jobs and creative/sporty people flooding the west side over the next five, 10 and 20 years. Mayor Dave Bieter calls it “a new urban form” that we don’t even have the language to describe yet, though a 200-plus page master plan for the area describes it in great detail. But the master plan and years of studies of the 30th Street area have paid almost no attention to one potential roadblock to development: the existence of dozens and maybe more than 100 brownfield sites within the redevelopment area, including properties that at one time stored petroleum, manufacturing sites, former dry cleaners and even a few small-scale mining operations.
The most recent master plan for 30th Street mentions Goodman, though it’s mistakenly called “Goodwin,” and dedicates only one paragraph to the possibility that “other brownfields sites may exist.”
DEVELOPMENT FOR RECLAMATION
Brownfields are a post-industrial, mostly urban problem, often contrasted with greenfield development, which occurs on agricultural land or open space. The concept came into vogue in England in the 1960s as a strategy for reusing former mining lands. According to a 2010 study by U.K. planners David Adams, Christopher De Sousa and Wisconsin urbanist Steven Tiesdell in Urban Affairs, British planners remain more concerned about ways to reclaim abandoned or derelict land than with the conditions that caused it to be abandoned or the type of contamination. The United States, on the other hand, has long focused on the contamination itself. In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed the Superfund Act, which put developers on the hook for toxic cleanup and actually hampered the reuse of former industrial sites for many years. In 1995, the EPA, recognizing that developers had been discouraged from tackling difficult redevelopment projects because of the environmental liability that the Superfund Act had created, launched a Brownfield Action Agenda. The brownfield program sought to relieve some liability concerns on contaminated land and provide federal funding for brownfield assessment and cleanup. It also provided a less harsh way of describing contamination, a key factor for image-conscious developers.
The 30th Street area in Boise is not home to any Superfund sites — the contamination or potential contamination is at a much more manageable level. At the Goodman site, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which distributes some EPA brownfield funds, found that the most problematic contaminant present was lead paint (and bullet casings) from an old homestead on the property. The petroleum contamination was not as severe as imagined. Eric Traynor, brownfields program manager at DEQ, spoke to many investors about the property, but all of the deals hinged on out-of-state financing. Since Goodman still owed EPA from the fines, DEQ completed the initial assessment and environmental studies and a local investor emerged, comfortable with the guarantees and incentives, including a temporary tax exemption, that the state’s voluntary cleanup program offered. The Yanke family (the late Ron Yanke was one of the original three investors in Micron) bought the property from Goodman and agreed to clean it up based on DEQ specifications.
A representative of the Yanke family declined to discuss plans for the property, but the fact that a local investor with an existing relationship with the city of Boise and an emotional and financial stake in the future of the city picked it up may be more than coincidence. Brownfield redevelopment is not for everyone — even though DEQ and the feds make certain guarantees about liability, the certainty may not be enough for some national banks or large investors not used to the intricacies of environmental cleanup.
BROWNFIELD AS MARKETING PLAN
Just east of the 30th Street area, on the way in to the downtown core, is another emerging neighborhood dubbed The Linen District. The area’s anchor tenant, The Linen Building, was Boise’s first brownfield rehab and also the pet project of another local developer with a stake in downtown. Google “David Hale” and dozens of results pop up lauding his work cleaning up an old laundry, restoring the building and creating a vibrant neighborhood that has become a destination and primary venue for the Treefort Music Festival.
“There was a market that was not being served in this town before 2000,” said Hale. “Locally owned businesses were important.”
DEQ brownfields funds made the project possible in many ways and helped foster the mix of funky, local businesses that has given the area its character, including a boutique hotel, bustling coffee shop and used building materials store that doubles as a training program for people in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The area has also resisted gentrification so far, a concern that can be heightened in brownfields because of the inherently depressed nature of the areas, but the promise of increased affordable housing has not materialized either.
First, the brownfields program gave Hale a level of comfort with the liability and cleanup costs he’d be taking on, but it was slow—it took three years for him to close on the building, more time than large, out-of-state interests may be willing to invest. Making the project a brownfield encouraged a certain type of development—Hale thinks national retailers stayed away both because of the lack of existing foot traffic but also because of the brownfield process and potential liability.
Perhaps the biggest boon of going brownfield was all the positive press Hale received. Several smart growth and green building groups wrote up the Linen District, the Boise Weekly ran a fawning profile of Hale—“the trendy clothes, the oversized shades, the meticulously messy hair”— and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo continues to cite the project in his support of the EPA’s brownfields program, including at a Senate hearing earlier this year.
A STRATEGY FOR RENEWAL
Though the city has many key elements in place including a new urban renewal district, new leadership at the redevelopment agency and most recently, a point person assigned the 30th Street project who plans to set up shop in the neighborhood, city officials have not articulated a complete vision for the large number of vacant lots—including two large city owned lots—in the area. In a state loathe to interfere with private sector investments, city boosters from the mayor down are cautious not to “get out ahead of the market.”
“I’m a firm believer that you do not try to pick the catalyst,” said Boise City Councilman David Eberle, a Ph.D. economist and director of the Environmental Finance Center at Boise State. “You do not try to pick who you want; that is truly a market decision. It is rare that a government gets that right.”
Eberle feels that further brownfield designations could be seen as a stigma to developers. Fellow city council member Lauren McLean, who also worked at the EFC a decade ago and in the conservation movement for many years, said that if the area qualifies for brownfield funds the city should pursue them. The EPA and state environmental regulators—not to mention Sen. Crapo, a conservative Republican and former state legislator—consider brownfields funds to be primarily economic development funds. Crapo is actively supporting a reauthorization of the brownfields program that broadens eligibility for grants and opens up brownfield funds for large, complicated sites.
The area-wide approach for brownfield redevelopment referenced in the latest bill before Congress may fit the needs of the 30th Street area well. A 2004 discussion paper published by Resources for the Future, a D.C.-based environmental policy think tank, recommended looking at brownfields at a community level, rather than parcel by parcel.
“In particular, to link brownfields and sustainable practice, practitioners need to move beyond a property-by-property approach and place brownfields in a larger-scale endeavor that seeks to revitalize a wider area of the community,” argued the paper, led by Kris Wernstedt, now an associate professor at Virginia Tech.
As Crapo put it in an op-ed earlier this year: “Even when Brownfields do not pose a threat to human health, the mere perception of contamination can discourage redevelopment. … The best way to grow jobs on these properties is by working together in a timely manner to clean up and redevelop the properties.”
Though a full brownfield assessment has not been completed on the 30th Street area and a preliminary survey that has been completed is not available to the public, DEQ and historical data indicate that many of the properties slated for new development are potentially contaminated in some way. If the Linen District is any indication, that may be a condition the city and potential west side developers would do well to embrace.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.