Redeveloping contaminated sites can take years. In the interim, area residents often live with empty lots surrounded by chain-link fences, and choked with garbage and weeds. But at Dunbar and 40th St. in Vancouver, what could have been an eyesore left by the demolition of a gas station is instead producing ruby tomatoes, fragrant basil and tender leaves of lettuce.
Thanks to the efforts of Shifting Growth, a non-profit agency aiming to build community gardens on vacant land, residents grow fruits, veggies and herbs in 35 raised planter boxes that can be moved to another location when the year-by-year agreement is up.
“We use a unique style of bed, where we raise and separate it from the soil, eliminating any risk of in-soil contamination,” says Chris Reid, executive director of Shifting Growth, which now has five such gardens in Vancouver, with two more slated for completion.
The raised beds make the cost a little higher compared to other kinds of gardens, and the land-owner pays a fee. But in return, says Reid, the land-owner gets about a 60 percent tax break by switching the land from commercial/ industrial to community benefit.
What’s more, adds Peter Reid, environmental practice leader with Hemmera Envirochem Inc., “it creates a bit of a buzz. People know where the property is when it does get developed…It’s a win-win for everybody involved.”
Alternative to fences and warning signs
Interim use, says Reid, is something that as an industry, more people are looking at. From a food truck hub in Portland, Oregon to interim parkettes in Los Angeles and Terrace, B.C., a wind farm in Wyoming and film sets in Toronto and Vancouver, people are finding innovative ways to make contaminated land productive while it’s being actively or naturally remediated. There’s a growing understanding, he says, that “maybe we’re being too conservative by putting up fences and warning signs.”
By working with local communities, such spaces can sometimes be put to use until property values warrant redevelopment. “It just takes a little bit of science to set it up and a few people getting together to figure out how they can make it work,” says Reid.
He points to urban agriculture as an innovative interim use for contaminated land. Fuelled by the Slow Food movement, such operations differ from community gardens in that they produce locally grown food on a larger scale.
Perhaps the most successful example of such a project is Vancouver’s Sole Food Street Farms, launched in 2008 by farmer and author Michael Ableman and his business partner Seann Dory. The two aimed to create urban farms for residents of the city’s notorious Downtown Eastside. Their reasoning: they believe it’s “healing” for people to be connected to the process of growing, and they aim to offer meaningful work for recovering addicts and others.
“They couldn’t find any land to use,” says Reid of Hemmera (who consulted on the project early on), “so they went to the City of Vancouver.” The city suggested using vacant brownfield sites and Sole Food came up with the idea of using raised, moveable pallets for growing “so there’s absolutely no connection between the soil that they’re growing the food in and the ground,” says Reid.
Sole Food’s leasing agreements generally last five years and land-owners allow use of the land for free in exchange for the tax break achieved by switching from commercial land use to agricultural.
Sole Food currently has four locations, producing 100,000 pounds of food for farmers’ markets, retail shops, restaurants and a program that offers subscribers a box of fresh produce weekly for $800 a year. Even better, says Reid: “At last count, they’d taken 40 people from the Downtown Eastside who didn’t have jobs and were addicted to drugs and gave them a second chance.”
Brightfields on brownfields
It’s easy to see how high-value land in urban locations can be repurposed. But when land values are low, contaminated sites, such as abandoned aggregate pits, mines and industrial sites can remain virtual dead zones for decades. Paul Fitzgerald, managing partner of ArcStar Energy Ltd. wants to change that by converting them to solar power operations.
The advantages are many, he says. First, such land has few, if any, competitive development uses, and local communities are eager to cooperate. What’s more, the sites are generally already clear of flora and fauna, so there aren’t any environmental objections to the projects. And they often have infrastructure in place, such as roads and security.
Take the case of an ArcStar project in Kemptville, Ont. that is currently awaiting approval from the Ontario Power Authority. The aggregate pit mine has been shut down for 10 years. Located down an over-grown road, it has become a magnet for under-aged beer-swilling teenagers, illegal dumpers, target shooters and wild partiers. “It’s causing problems with the neighbours and with the community,” says Fitzgerald, “and they’ve really had no success at controlling it.”
ArcStar has applied to install ground-mounted solar panels capable of producing 10 megawatts of energy on the site. The benefits for the community: new jobs, because ArcStar plans to use local labour to build, maintain and operate the facility. It will also be fenced and secure.
“There won’t be access to the site,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s isolated enough that people won’t see it on a regular basis, but they also won’t have the wild parties and shooting that is going on now.” It’s an easy sell for the landlord, too, because “the land isn’t productive so any sort of lease option that is economical for them, they’re interested in.”
The projects require a degree of specialized knowledge, says Fitzgerald. “We remove any hot spots before we put anybody in to manage or work on the site,” he says, “and we do have to manage water quality on the site and coming off the site to ensure it doesn’t cause further damage.”
In addition, as always with contaminated sites, liability is an issue. “We know enough about the sites we’re considering that we’re willing to take on that liability.”
A key consideration with interim development is remediation, adds David Harper, president of Kilmer Equity Brownfield Fund LP.
“The sites themselves aren’t static…You may be doing some heavy work on the property like demolition and remediation.”
Even when the land itself can’t be used, the hoarding can provide a showcase for community art (such as children’s murals)—a technique Kilmer has long used on its sites, he says.
The projects also need a champion. “The challenge with some projects is you’ve got to monitor, maintain and manage them,” says Harper. Developers, he contends, are not in the business of managing gardens so the impetus has to come from elsewhere.
“I think it really just requires champions and stakeholders in the community to take it on,” says Harper. Organizations such as Shifting Growth, particularly paired with municipal champions, can move things along, he adds.
Of course, risk is an issue with contaminated sites. “There’s always some fear that if you turn over access to a contaminated site it may impede your ability to be responsible,” Harper explains.
Prospective interim users, he contends, need to have an understanding of the contamination issues and their potential impact on workers or visitors. “The ministry of environment does raise concerns if there’s public access to the site,” he says. &ldquo
;Even in an interim state, these sites have to be safe.”
Despite initial hesitation though, responsible assessment of contaminated sites—along with municipal buy-in and program champions—can turn abandoned eyesores into vibrant community showpieces, and yield economic benefits for landowners.