Janesville focusing a new effort on brownfield sites

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Monday, December 13, 2010
— The former Robinson's Cleaners building on Centerway.

The vacant and decaying ammunitions factory on Franklin Street.

The shuttered GM plant.

The buildings hunker obstinately on Janesville's landscape. Many residents can't remember some of them ever being occupied. Mostly, people try to ignore them.

Such sites languish because of suspected or known contamination, city staff says. The properties often are located in older, inner city and commercial areas, places where development is needed the most.

The city is adopting a proactive approach to the so-called brownfield sites, where development is hampered because of the real or suspected contamination.

Brownfields can be large, industrial sites or small, abandoned gas stations.

The city has applied for two $200,000 federal grants.

Under the new approach, the city would use the money to work with property owners for initial phases of investigation to discover the extent of contamination.

That could mean taking soil samples and monitoring the groundwater, for instance.

City Manager Eric Levitt said it is important to do the initial work because the vitality of the central city is an important area of economic growth. But redevelopment on brownfield sites is more costly for developers.

"That creates the need for the city to be involved in that type of development," Levitt said.

Al Hulick, management analyst, said the degree of contamination varies. Sometimes, it's only an unconfirmed suspicion, but the perception alone is enough to stop development interest.

"People stay away," Hulick said. "They don't want to subject themselves to the potential liability and potential cost of remediating that site."

People often think contamination is caused by leaking drums of toxic chemicals, Hulick said. But years ago, employees at some businesses pitched contaminates out the back doors. Some sites have underground tanks that have leaked.

It's not always easy to determine the size of the problem.

"You just don't know until you get down in there," Hulick said.

In the past, the city got involved in brownfield sites only if it wanted to buy the property for redevelopment.

The grants would be the first step in a comprehensive brownfield program, Hulick said.

The city should know in spring if it is awarded any of the $400,000.

Officials aren't sure how many brownfield sites are in the city. Part of the plan is to create an inventory that includes the redevelopment potential of each site. Staff also would work with public health workers to monitor the health of people in neighborhoods with brownfields.

"In addition to impacting the city vitality on the whole, these areas create environmental justice concerns where human health and economic welfare may be disproportionately affecting neighborhood areas of older, affordable housing stock most appealing to low-income residents," the grant proposal reads.

The grant application covers four areas:

-- Downtown. Properties there include vacant and active industrial and commercial lots, including several on the riverfront. Hulick pointed to the building at 170 S. River St. as an example.

The area around the property is making some gains in redevelopment, but Hulick doesn't know if that property, one of the oldest industrial sites in the city, is contaminated.

-- The Traxler Park area. The 31-acre park is a focal point of the 1998 Riverfront Plan, which calls for expansion of the park and redevelopment along the periphery. While some success has been realized, "a number of sites with known contamination remain, discouraging new developers and limiting the positive impact that activity generated at the Traxler Park area can have on the downtown," Hulick said.

-- The Five Points area, especially to the south and west along the rail lines.

-- The General Motors plant area, which some suspect sits on a stew of contamination. The plant property is more than 200 acres, which represents about one-fourth of the city's industrial square footage. GM has it on standby.

"Much of this area was used for industry dating back even before GM, and many underutilized properties have suspected contamination issues that threaten to derail any redevelopment efforts," the grant application reads.

The city hopes to work with GM to gauge the extent of contamination, Levitt said.

The proactive approach would help current property owners make properties marketable and opens the door to funding to help the city clean up the sites, Hulick said.

"If we can increase that information, it only helps us as the city to make sites more usable and more marketable," Hulick said.

Last updated: 3:50 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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