The old and the new side by side in West Oakland.
After more than a decade of getting approved for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants to remediate "brownfields" (contaminated properties), Oakland has been turned down.
This is the first such rejection in a long time - and it will delay both cleanup work and possible development in West Oakland.
(This story is part of Oakland Local's original series on polluted properties in West Oakland: "Toxic Tour 2: Right Beneath Our Feet." Read all stories in this series, and donate now to help us continue this coverage.)
Submitted late last year, Oakland's 2011 EPA grant application would have allowed the city to assess contamination at six West Oakland sites slated for cleanup or redevelopment. All six sites are either currently providing some level of affordable housing, or they would be after development. This "neighborhood" approach to assessment and cleanup would have especially benefited West Oakland, which has a large number of brownfields situated in residential areas.
How important are brownfields grants?
Karoleen Feng, Senior Project Manager for the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (a nonprofit housing developer working to renovate several of the sites named in the grant application) explained the grants' impact:
"EPA brownfields grants have been very beneficial to us," she said. "They directly supported site assessment and cleanup of Lion Creek Crossings in East Oakland and Giant Road Apartments in the city of San Pablo.
"Those two communities provide rental homes to more than 450 families - soon to be 525 households. Of course, our buildings are more than just homes. What all of our properties share is that they help build community through added services such as after school programs, technology learning centers and family economic success programs."
Which local brownfields get cleaned up, and why
Over the past 12 years the city of Oakland (including Oakland's redevelopment agency, CEDA), BART and several local nonprofits have received nearly 20 EPA brownfield grants totaling more than $5.3 million.
These grants have funded the assessment of environmental contamination, hazardous waste, hazardous waste cleanup and job training programs.
Who pays for cleanup? If a property is contaminated at levels that could be a health hazard, or which are causing immediate harm, then either the state of California or the federal government pays for cleanup.
But if the assessed risk falls below emergency-level thresholds, then even if that risk is ongoing, cleanup might not happen unless someone has an interest in developing the property.
To spur developer interest in cleaning up Oakland brownfields, the city has fostered cooperation with CEDA as well as for-profit and nonprofit developers. Mark Gomez, supervisor of Environmental Protection and Compliance for the city of Oakland, describes it this way:
"One of the things that the city of Oakland and CEDA have done over time is acquire properties that show at least a specter of some sort of contamination. We define the level of contamination there, clean them up, and then flip them to a private developer."
In the late '90s and the early 2000s, this strategy worked very well. "Ultimately the market drives most redevelopment projects, and most cleanups happen as part of a redevelopment," he observed.
Oakland's special twist on using brownfields grants
Two factors make Oakland's use of brownfields grants unique:
Many of these grants didn't merely help clean sites up enough to allow further industrial or commercial use. Rather, these lands have been transformed - often for residential use. It's rare that a former gas station or manufacturing site gets cleaned up enough to accommodate housing. Yet in Oakland, this has happened many times.
Feng, of EBALDC, explained why it's becoming more common for organizations like hers to turn brownfields into housing:
"Private developers often consider brownfields more costly to develop. Taking on these sites has direct positive environmental impact by utilizing lands that would otherwise go to waste," she said. "By developing brownfields, we address head on concerns of neighborhood blight. In the process we build healthy, vibrant communities."
From brownfields to showcase housing
The short walk from old Oakland to uptown Oakland reveals several housing developments - most built in the last decade - which sit on former brownfields.
In one case, the city leveraged EPA money and polluter liability to create significant cost savings for the developer. Gomez, of the city of Oakland, explained that the site of the Uptown Apartments and Fox Courts once was significantly contaminated - in both the soil and groundwater.
The city received some EPA grants to do some assessment and cleanup of those properties. Oakland also worked with Chevron, which once owned a gas station there that had leaking underground storage tanks.
Chevron eventually contributed $700,000 to the cleanup. "That was a big deal," Gomez said. The city matched that contribution with $600,000 from an EPA grant.
"Those two infusions of cash really helped to remove the environmental concerns from that real estate transaction, and from the development project. This was important for moving forward in the construction that you see today," he said.
San Pablo corridor cleanups seeking new funding
The EPA grant which Oakland did not win this year would have funded assessment and eventual cleanup of several properties along the San Pablo corridor in West Oakland - including the run-down California Hotel, a historic property that EBALDC hopes to recondition into better quality affordable housing.
Previously most of Oakland's EPA brownfield grants funded remediation efforts in downtown Oakland and the Coliseum section of East Oakland.
In West Oakland the Cypress-Mandela Training Center (which is involved with the South Prescott lead pollution cleanup we covered earlier) has received brownfield remediation training funds from EPA three times.
Of course, the city and local nonprofits will keep applying for EPA brownfield grants. Recently EPA announced a new series of brownfield grant application webinars for Fiscal Year 2012. City agencies and nonprofits such as EBALDC can apply for funding. For-profit and privately held organizations are not eligible.
In the meantime, EBALDC is seeking other funding sources for its West Oakland cleanup and affordable housing development projects.
This story is part of the Bay Area Toxic Tour 2 series, made possible by a generous grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Help fund the rest of this series: DONATE NOW
The original Bay Area Toxic Tour series was published in 2009 by Newsdesk.org
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