The Greening of Florida's Brownfields
Federal infrastructure funds are doubling the pace of transforming derelict sites.
Over the last quarter-century, Florida has helped to transform almost 200 contaminated sites into clean community hubs. The pace of the redevelopment is about to pick up dramatically.
Developer Roxanne Williams, who turns some of those derelict sites into places where she would be comfortable spending an afternoon with her grandchildren, is happy that a big bump in federal infrastructure funding for brownfield redevelopment is flowing into Florida.
“It will absolutely be a boon for brownfields,” says Williams, principal at St. Petersburg-based Mosaic Development, which last year won one of three Florida Brownfields Association awards for best innovative redevelopment with a positive community impact. Mosaic’s award-winner is Gallery 3100 in St. Petersburg, a Class A apartment building with 9% of the units reserved for workforce housing. The $27-million redevelopment rose on a two-acre brownfield site in an opportunity zone. Mosaic demolished an abandoned bank building and removed debris that had accumulated around it for decades.
Williams says her company and the communities come out ahead, which is one reason Mosaic Development (which is not affiliated with the fertilizer company with a similar name) seeks out brownfield sites for cleanup and redevelopment. In addition, the projects generate increased tax revenue.
“It’s a home run,” Williams says. “We pursue opportunities, and we see brownfields as very viable ones.”
Florida Brownfields ...
- 550 — Sites, comprising 292,099 acres of residential and business properties
- 196 — Sites cleaned up since 1997; 19 in 2021; seven through mid-2022
- $452 million — Redevelopment generated since 1997
- 16,000 — Net new jobs created
From beast to beauty
Brownfields are sites where soil and/or water are contaminated with substances left behind from former uses such as lumber yards, gas stations, dry-cleaning facilities or power plants. The largest designated brownfield site in Florida’s history is a 608-acre wellfield in Fort Myers. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection lists 18 brownfield projects spanning 100 acres or more dating to 2003, including sites in Sarasota, St. Augustine and Ocala. In 2022, all new cleanup agreements were for 22 acres or less, most of them in Miami-Dade and Jacksonville.
Long shunned because of contamination that would be expensive to mitigate, brownfields often are situated in prime locations downtown and on waterfronts that are economically cut off from surrounding prosperity. Cleaned up and redeveloped, they have become gathering places and parks, with urban trails, water features, outdoor concerts, public art displays and dining spots. Others have become home to medical clinics such as AdventHealth Port Orange ER and housing complexes for seniors or restricted-income workers.
“Parks are really spectacular redevelopment stories,” says Christian Wells, an applied environmental anthropologist at the University of South Florida who has previously led the Florida Brownfields Association. “People want and value parks and outdoor spaces and gardens. Developers are attracted because these are good investments, with so many incentives to transform blighted properties.”
Wells, director of USF’s Center for Brownfields Research & Redevelopment, says he expects the pace of converting brownfields to double or even triple over the next five years as communities and developers invest $1.5 billion in supplemental funding authorized in the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021. (Another $3.5 billion will accelerate cleanup of federal Superfund sites.)
“We have some of the oldest and most problematic infrastructure and old industrial sites and cleanup needs,” Wells says. “If local governments and non-profits organize and take advantage of these resources flowing down, it’s really a game changer for the state of Florida, and especially for communities with environmental justice challenges.”
The federal funds — both in annual appropriations and in the one-time Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — roll out in revolving loan funds, site assessment grants, cleanup grants and funds to expand applicants’ capacity to manage this kind of work. Sara Janovitz, acting brownfields and redevelopment section manager for EPA Region 4, says six Florida applicants were awarded $376,00 to $500,000 each in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding last year to assess sites they believe are eligible for brownfield restoration. The EPA will announce new awards this month. (Region 4 covers Florida, seven neighboring states and six federally designated tribes, including the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes.)
Back to life
Brownfield redevelopment can take years, sometimes decades. Contaminated soil is not always removed. Sometimes it’s diluted with cleaner soil or layered over with instructions never to disturb the barrier.
Learning what toxins are present and what it takes to remove or mitigate them is the first step in brownfield rehabilitation, Janovitz says.
“We have all these abandoned gas stations and dry cleaners, and in Region 4 we see a lot of abandoned mills from the early 1900s. It’s hard for someone to take ownership of that site and move it forward without knowing what’s there,” she says. “I view our program as helping start that process. The spirit of our program is bringing our sites that are underutilized back to life. And the benefit to the public? There are so many.”
Using state and federal funds, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection conducts site assessments, offers liability protection, helps develop and monitor cleanup agreements, grants job-creation tax refunds and sales-tax waivers, and issues Voluntary Cleanup Tax Credits of up to $500,000 per project for removing toxins such as dry-cleaning solvents.
Nationwide, the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021 delivered the single largest investment in U.S. brownfields history, the state DEP says. The federal funding is estimated to attract another $30.2 billion in additional public and private funding and support 154,000 jobs.
Notable Brownfields Projects
- Tampa’s Water Works Park and Ulele Spring
Once polluted by a police fuel depot, the site is now riverside open space with amenities including a playground and the nearby Armature Works, a redeveloped historic building with eateries and event spaces.
- Solary Park in Oviedo
Once the site of a gas station, it is now a park around a lake and a centerpiece of the redeveloped heart of the Oviedo Historic Downtown Area.
- Cannery Row at Redlands Crossing in southern Miami-Dade
The site of an abandoned lumber storage yard and railroad, it was redeveloped into a Pinnacle senior-housing complex.