- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

The District wants to help developers turn its brownfields into gold mines.

Brownfields environmentally tainted sites that usually have been abandoned by the companies that used them are being eyed by builders who want to transform them into new offices, apartments, hotels and restaurants.

Unlike land that has been polluted by hazardous waste, brownfields can usually be cleaned and redeveloped.

The sites often sit vacant for years, though, because they aren't subject to the federal laws that force companies to clean up seriously tainted land, and because banks resist backing projects that could fail because of environmental problems.

Officials have identified 11 brownfields in the District, including sites once used by power plants, factories and junkyards. Officials say the land is contaminated because industrial chemicals, gasoline, oil and antifreeze have seeped into the ground.

"These are lost assets to the community that can be recovered," said Harold W. Pfohl, vice president of Lincoln Property Co., an Arlington company redeveloping a brownfield in Southeast.

The D.C. Council is crafting legislation that would offer liability protection and tax relief to builders who clean up polluted sites to develop them, according to spokesmen for several council members.

The legislation, a combination of bills introduced earlier by Mayor Anthony A. Williams and council members, would also reduce the red tape builders encounter when they want to redevelop brownfields, the spokesmen said.

At least five of the 11 brownfields identified by the District are already slated for redevelopment, according to the D.C. Department of Health.

The Lincoln Property project, Maritime Plaza, will place 900,000 square feet of new office and hotel space on a 12-acre site in Southeast where Washington Gas operated a coal-burning plant for a century.

Another project is the new headquarters of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which is to be built at a site on New York Avenue NE used by the D.C. Department of Public Works to store road salt.

Other brownfields slated for redevelopment include Southeast Federal Center, a 55-acre plot that the federal government is cleaning to lease to private tenants, and a former ship repair yard in Southeast that is being converted into office space for the U.S. Navy.

Mr. Pfohl said the Maritime Plaza site was too valuable to not be redeveloped.

The site will be near the Navy Yard in Southeast, which is to benefit from approximately 4,200 Navy contracting jobs over the next few years.

The site was used from the 1880s until 1983 as a coal-burning plant by Washington Gas, which still owns the land.

Tim Sargeant, a Washington Gas spokesman, would not disclose how much the company spent to clean up the site before hiring Lincoln Property to redevelop it.

"We wanted to see this land put to use. It would have been a shame to just write it off," Mr. Sargeant said.

Spokesmen for the D.C. Council members crafting the District's brownfields legislation said they hope the bill will encourage builders to redevelop the remaining six brownfields in the city, which include the 15-acre car-impoundment lot on Brentwood Road NE and a 100-acre landfill in Southeast.

If the District passes a law, it will join more than 30 states including Maryland and Virginia that have enacted brownfields legislation since the mid-1990s.

The Maryland program provides tax incentives to redevelopers of brownfields, while the Virginia initiative relaxed the regulatory hurdles developers must overcome to clean up polluted sites.

James Henry, an official with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state has found some owners of polluted land are reluctant to ask the state for help cleaning the property because they fear they will be held liable.

A 1998 study by the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank that reports on the nation's urban problems, found contaminated land discourages development, although most developers can work around the problem without government-sanctioned brownfields programs.

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