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Our Opinion: Clean up brownfields for right reasons

Portland’s leaders are placing a lot of hope — and potentially a pile of money — on the possibility of turning abandoned properties into thriving commercial or industrial endeavors.

It’s good that the city is trying to address its brownfield problem — all 910 acres of it. Despite Portland’s lush greenery and its reputation as an environmentally clean city, it has more than its share of unsightly parcels of land. Abandoned gas stations, old industrial properties, and defunct dry cleaning businesses are examples of sites that likely are polluted and therefore classified as brownfields.

Many of these sites hold immense promise for improving their surrounding neighborhoods, first by removing an eyesore, and then by injecting new life in the form of mixed-use or other types of developments. That’s why we wholeheartedly agree with the city’s current push to identify the sites and work with various partners to turn them into something more appealing.

But when discussing the city of Portland and brownfields, it’s also important to strike a cautionary note: Brownfields, which can take decades to reclaim, cannot satisfy the short-term need for additional industrial land within the city.

Underscoring that point is the city’s goal regarding brownfields: It optimistically hopes to redevelop 60 percent of these brownfields in the next 25 years.

Clearly, city planners and others understand this will be a long-term process. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not worth pursuing. As reported by Jennifer Anderson in the Aug. 28 Portland Tribune, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has updated its inventory of brownfields, and the city is engaging the Bureau of Environmental Services, the Portland Development Commission, Metro and the private sector in its brownfield-reclamation effort.

The 60 percent cleanup goal is contained in a proposed draft of the city’s comprehensive plan. City leaders believe it’s possible to hit that goal in 25 years, but it will take work. Seventy percent of the brownfield acreage is in industrial districts, which are the hardest to develop because of the need to maintain existing industrial uses.

This is where the city cannot get too clever in attempting to claim it can meet its state-mandated requirement for industrial land. Brownfields aren’t immediately usable for development. So, if the Portland metro area wants to keep an adequate level of industrial land available for the next manufacturing company that arrives in town, it should not count on brownfields at all.

However, the brownfield initiative doesn’t have to be focused on industrial parcels to be successful. Commercial sites are equally — if not more — important.

These commercial properties, if developed properly, can help build communities. In cases where the city is able to provide financial incentives for developers to clean up commercial brownfield sites, then the city also can have more say in what gets developed.

A case in point is a site on Southeast 124th Avenue and Division Street that was featured in the Aug. 28 Tribune. The parcel is not within an urban renewal district, so the city and PDC have little control over what is developed. Neighbors don’t want another fast-food restaurant — they envision a mixed-use development of retail, offices and residential units.

The city can only offer carrots in situations such as this, to encourage the highest and best use of the property. It also can point to successful redevelopments of other brownfield sites: the Dharma Rain Center in Northeast Portland, the June Key Community Center and the community garden in Northeast Portland run by Groundwork Portland.

Money for redevelopment is, of course, the key ingredient for future successes. The city is hoping for funds from the 2015 Oregon Legislature, but that’s hardly a sure thing.

The city has taken an important step in its effort to clean up brownfield sites. The hardest work is yet to come, but this initiative also must be undertaken with realistic goals in mind. This should be about cleaning up blighted properties and improving neighborhoods — and perhaps eventually reclaiming industrial land for modern uses.

Meeting state land-use goals for industrial property is a related topic, but one that cannot wait for decades.