Incentives give Lansing brownfields a greener future
By Kevin Lavery, WKAR News
In early June, 2010, the Lansing city council approved a tax credit package aimed at bringing a local landmark back to life. A developer is converting the former site of the Marshall Street Armory into a new headquarters for five area non-profits.
The armory is one of hundreds of brownfield sites scattered across the region. Brownfields are abandoned or underused properties that often hide environmental contamination. When these commercial sites go idle, so does the revenue they generate. But Lansing community leaders are using a mix of financial incentives to get some of these sites back on the tax rolls and inject new dollars into the economy.
Oil slicks aren't pretty...especially these days. Even tiny ones, like the kind that silently drip from your car sometimes when you stop to "fill 'er up." It's hard to smile at a smudge. But standing in an abandoned gas station on Lansing's east side, Ingham County treasurer Eric Schertzing envisions something more attractive. He chairs the county land bank, which acquired a former Citgo station last March in a tax foreclosure.
"You know, this is kind of the fun stuff, the pretty pictures; strategizing about what the potential could be for this," Schertzing says. The pretty picture in his hand is a sketch of a proposed apartment complex and retail center that may one day anchor this corner on Michigan Avenue. Regional leaders want to beautify this busy corridor and lure more businesses here. They also want to capitalize on the million and a half people who ride public transit on this stretch every year. That's why Schertzing is excited about creating something new. "So we really want to make sure that things along Michigan Avenue are done in a beautiful way to reset the tone and the feel for the avenue," adds Schertzing.
A gas station fits the classic definition of a brownfield. In April, the EPA awarded the city of Lansing a $400,000 grant to conduct environmental assessments on more than 50 sites like this. That's the first phase in a continuum that returns blighted or obsolete properties back to something that's economically viable.
People like James Harless help make that happen. He's a vice-president with the environmental consulting firm SME. He points to some round steel caps embedded in the ground. Some are portals that cover the fuel tanks. Others are monitoring wells, where other engineers looked for contamination. Harless says this site is on the state's list of leaking underground storage tanks.
"And to get on that list, somebody has to report evidence of a release," Harless explains. "We will put a probe down in the tank, and very often there will be liquid or sludge or oily water in the bottom of these. If that gasoline is left in there, it can continue to leak." The gas station is likely to remain in the county's hands after an auction later this summer.
One block north, another property further along in the revitalization process is being readied for transformation. Above the doors of the Marshall Street Armory, a large stone eagle stands silent vigil over its visitors. For eight decades, the Michigan Army National Guard drilled soldiers, trained horses and fired artillery shells here. The last unit moved out in 2005. Inside, the original 1920's gymnasium creaks from the memory of countless boxing rounds and hoop matches.
Jason Kildea is with the Gillespie Group, the project's lead developer. He says the five non-profits who will set up shop here want that sound to convey an active, living building. So, the floor - and its markings - will stay: "So you may be sitting in somebody's office right over here and have part of three-point line and the out of bounds line in there," muses Kildea. "Have that tell a story. That's what keeps the history of the building alive."
There are some environmental impacts on site. Initial sampling found deposits of lead, arsenic and mercury in the soil and groundwater. But there are no plans to excavate. SME's Steve Willobee says their research shows it's not a health threat, because the deposits are buried beyond the reach of everyday exposure. "So when we were looking at that site being adjacent to Pattengill Middle School and a community garden, it was a concern of ours because you have people there pulling produce from those sites," Willobee says. "But it's not a direct contact issue."
The project is funded by a jigsaw puzzle of local, state and federal grants and tax credits. That's standard practice for developers across the country. But Michigan's brownfield redevelopment model is unique. It's the only one specifically designed to use some of a property's tax revenue to reimburse developers for environmental costs like soil disposal and building demolition. This tax increment financing program is the centerpiece of a statewide push to put brownfields with no taxable value back onto municipal tax rolls. Jason Kildea says the Gillespie Group might not have given the armory a second look if this public help was unavailable.
"We'd look at go buying a nice, clean, fresh piece of dirt that hasn't been developed and let something like this sit by the wayside," Kildea says. "I really don't think a site like this has ever made financial sense without the incentives, otherwise you would have buildings like this sit for years and years." Jason Kildea says the Gillespie Group might not have given the armory a second look if this public help was unavailable.
Developers admit that giving new life to a brownfield costs more than building fresh on a green field. But with the right financing, communities save money by not having to extend streets or utilities. Lansing has many other properties that could be money-makers once again. It may be just a matter of time before some of the city's vacant manufacturing sites begin to spur more revenue and revitalization.
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan