From problems to possibility: Collaborative teams reshape brownfields planning in West Virginia
February 27, 2014
Kathy Wittner didn’t realize exactly what she was getting into when she agreed to be part of a small-town revitalization team organized by the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative, a subsidiary of the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center (BAC).
“I came in cold,” says Wittner, a professor of landscape architecture at West Virginia University. “We didn’t know who we’d be teamed with.”
Wittner arrived at the BAC to participate in a competition held among 10 projects from the northern half of the state. She was placed with a team working on the Little Kanawha Riverfront Redevelopment Project in Parkersburg, a town of 30,000 where the smaller river joins the Ohio. That day, her team was chosen for a 2012 Redevelopment Collaborative grant.
The Little Kanawha Riverfront Project represents the process that makes the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative’s work unique and effective.
In addition to providing grants, the Collaborative assembles teams of experts to provide a much-needed capacity boost for small town stakeholders seeking to revitalize a local brownfield. Housed at West Virginia University, the Collaborative taps into that resource to flesh out teams with faculty like Wittner, while also providing a hands-on learning experience for students.
Housed at West Virginia University, the Collaborative taps into that resource to flesh out teams with faculty like Wittner, while also providing a hands-on learning experience for students.
Teams also involve private-sector consultants with relevant expertise, as well as public agency representatives from complementary local and state programs. These teams of experts work closely with teams of community stakeholders to build capacity and implement redevelopment plans on priority community projects. Thus far, the Collaborative has funded 20 of these projects in three funding rounds.
Home to a Standard Oil Company refining station, other chemical and lumber company operations and, most recently, the Vitro Agate Marble Factory, the Little Kanawha Riverfront site has been in disuse since the late 1980s, although it is still privately owned. With its riverfront access, the community was interested in seeing the land transformed into a park.
“The property fell into disrepair,” notes Rickie Yeager, the Parkersburg development director. “Since 2005, it has caught on fire twice. The city’s looked at it because we’re built out — there’s not a lot of green space where we are, so we have to look inside.”
The Little Kanawha project, which Wittner advised, had already received previous funding through the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center (BAC) for site assessment, stakeholder identification, community development, capacity building, revitalization planning and marketing. Thus, the BAC had already been working with Yeager and others and had some drawings and ideas for revitalizing this eight-acre site.
Yeager and the BAC had done so much work by the time of the Collaborative’s grant competition that Wittner questioned where she could contribute — but only at first. After four hours of working with her new team, hers was one of five groups to win $5,000 grants for their cities’ Main Street organizations to undertake more detailed planning and community participation.
For the next year, her team — which had additional members from Parkersburg and from WVU, including a community design team coordinator and a marketing expert — worked on the project, aiming to come up with a conceptual drawing. They did a site inventory, enlisted state highway department officials to discuss site access, and consulted other parks and facilities officials in Parkersburg.
Her team met with community stakeholders such as the Boys and Girls Club, since their organization was in a building across the railroad tracks behind the proposed redevelopment, “to make sure we were really fulfilling a need,” Wittner says. The idea, she adds, “was to turn brown spaces into green spaces — and they desperately need green space. We need to take back our streams and rivers by making them the vital resource that they are.”
Together, the team and the public proposed ways for the park redevelopment to pay for itself. They envisioned small retail outlets, including a restaurant, along the site’s street level and a nature center. Bike trails that connect Pittsburgh to the north to Washington, D.C. would pass through the site as well. A marina and a fishing pier are also part of the plan, since the two rivers are mostly blocked from city access thanks to a 1950s-era floodwall — but not next to this brownfield.
“Actually using the water — that was our goal,” Wittner says.
Finally, the team presented its plans to city council, the public works department and the public. And they met with the property’s owner who, Wittner believes, now understands how much community support there is for the plan – and how much more difficult it would be in the future to propose a less-popular use for the site.
Getting teams together to plan for such small-town renovation projects “is difficult because the different stakeholders involved are government officials to academics and they have to find value from this,” says Patrick Kirby, director of the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center.
“We have events helping these communities perfect their pitch and get together with people – the elevator pitch: your barriers, your needs, your requests. Most of them, when we ask them these questions, they don’t know it at the beginning of the process.
“It’s not just about the money” as a barrier, he adds. “Everybody will tell you if they had the money they’d get the project done, but that’s not the barrier. The major barrier is actually knowing what the barrier is. And then the lack of a re-use plan …”
In Parkersburg, for instance, “we sort of forced them to put a team together,” Kirby says, “with the idea that it was going to be more than one project.” Since then, the city team has also worked on a redevelopment plan for a local hotel, leveraging that work to approach a city-focused foundation for money, and working on another historical building downtown. “We never would have gotten to that downtown building without working with them on the other project,” he says.
Vacant property, says Carrie Staton, head of the West Virginia Redevelopment Collaborative, “is certainly a large issue that pretty much all of our communities are facing. A lot of the smaller communities didn’t quite grasp the full re-development process” or realize what resources were available to them, she says. The Collaborative outlines both process and resources, then matches services and potential team members with the needs of each community. It awarded its first grants in December 2011.
“The Collaborative grew out of some lessons the Center learned in its first few years of working,” she says. That included the importance of finding ways to get community members past “the emotional conversation.”
“There’s this emotional connection to places — this is what it’s always been, or it can never be changed, because it’s been that way for so long,” she explains. Outside perspectives and site evaluations can open a community’s eyes to positive change for eyesores, nuisance properties and other long-time, seemingly intractable problems.
Other factors the Collaborative has had to battle include public perceptions about property owners. “There’s this broadly accepted idea of who owns the site, based on community memory, but that may not always be true,” she notes. The Collaborative helps communities find property owners and aids them in communicating their intentions early and often. “What we’ve been able to do is identify the heirs to get them to the table,” she says.
Working with the teams the Collaborative and BAC put together, “you’re surprised that everybody was thinking the same thing,” Staton says. “It’s not necessarily what the developer would want, but it helps to frame this conversation in a productive way.”
One of BAC’s helpful offerings, says Parkersburg’s Rickie Yeager, is an Excel decision-enhancer tool for vacant properties. Just plug all your planning data in, he explains, and “at the end it tells you what the best use is, based on your criteria.” Using the tool, “lo and behold, the highest and best use was recreation, and it verified what we already knew” from the community engagement process.
In Ohio and Pennsylvania, significant dollars have been allocated to brownfield cleanup, Yeager points out. “Unfortunately the state of West Virginia is not in a place to do that.” Before the BAC and Collaborative got involved, Parkersburg had received a U.S. EPA hazardous substance assessment grant of $200,000 to do phase I and II environmental assessments. Then the city worked with the BAC and its Collaborative to get $26,000 more in grants, including two from the Benedum Foundation, to create a conceptual use plan.
Having the BAC put him together with Wittner and others, Yeager says, “was one of the great experiences that came from the Brownfield Center. They were able to connect our needs with people who are experts in the area.”
Most recently, Yeager and the team have completed a feasibility study on the project’s proposed marina feature. Their next step is to seek a revolving loan fund from the EPA to help the owner clean up the site, or to help the Main Street group purchase the site themselves and clean it up. The group also needs to complete the EPA’s health and human risk assessment for the site.
If their plan flies and a developer buys into it, “it will become the recreation destination for the city” – and the region, Yeager believes. He was most impressed with how well the community responded, once the conceptual plan was publicized on the city’s Facebook page. “When we posted the results of the study and some of the plans, I was overwhelmed. We had over 3,000 hits. For a small community like us, that’s a big deal. The amenities that are being planned for, that’s what people in our community want.”
The Matthews Foundry Project in Martinsburg is another project benefiting from a Collaborative grant and its process of building a team that connects outside experts to local stakeholders. Matthews Foundry is a rundown, pre-Civil War stone building in the city’s core. Thus far, the team’s range of expertise and knowledge is helping to drive the planning process for the Foundry forward with new facts and fresh ideas.
Historic preservation consultant Michael Gioulis is contract designer for the state’s 12 Main Street communities and is a consultant on three project teams for the BAC.
“I’m learning as I go how to work with them… and what our expectations are,” he says. The Martinsburg team is not as far along as the Parkersburg group; the best use of the Foundry is not defined yet, he says, although two community workshops identified the public’s top desire: a restaurant/catering business with heavy emphasis on a possible brew pub.
Gioulis is working on identifying and discussing the treatment of historic materials still in the foundry and rehabbing the historically significant elements.
“What we’re producing are answers to questions I’d normally get from a developer or owner.”
Another Martinsburg team member, Joseph Freeman of Boggs Environmental Consultants, notes that “there’s a public perception of pollution at the site because of the prior use” and because it has never been purchased or renovated by the city. Main Street Martinsburg asked Boggs to identify any contamination to see if the Foundry site were really viable for renovation. He did an historical document review and contacted state and other agencies about any history of spills on the site. He conducted asbestos tests, took soil samples, performed a lead screening and looked for other dangerous organic compounds.
Apart from trace asbestos and a few doors with lead-based paints, “all of the contaminants we were really looking for came up clean,” he says. So the team has only the public’s perception to rehabilitate. “It basically took those issues out of the picture without having to enter into voluntary remediation.”
So far, Freeman has found the teamwork easy and the public “very receptive to seeing that property converted into something other than an abandoned brick structure.”
In the end, says BAC Director Patrick Kirby, the key to teams completing their project plans is “understanding the project, and that these are opportunities, not problems. Even if it’s not in our bag of tricks, we listen and we know people.
“Our success,” he concludes, “is working on one project at one time — it builds capacity in our community. It takes small steps but it’s setting up the next and the next project.”
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