Redeveloping Former Industrial Sites Doesn't Mean Giving Up on Industry

Brownfield projects in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Toledo aim to reimagine what manufacturing means in America

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Concept art from the Infill Philadelphia project (Courtesy of the Community Design Collaborative)

This month the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the latest grant recipients in an economic development initiative designed to help cities convert formerly industrial (and potentially contaminated) eyesores into community assets. The $13.3 million pot, coupled with another $35 million in federal loan guarantees, will help build a Marriott in Toledo, a light manufacturing site in Cleveland and, in Philadelphia, a supermarket within a food desert and an affordable housing project in a neighborhood where unemployment is twice the national rate. In all, HUD boasts that nearly 2,000 permanent jobs will be created.

The announcement – albeit for not a whole lot of money – hints at many problems solved on a single, equally problematic canvas: the brownfield. The potential is intriguing. Can cities revitalize such places and create jobs by hiring people to clean them up – and then live, work, and shop there? As Kaid Benfield points out, the benefits to such an arrangement can be big.

Rust Belt cities that grew up around traditional manufacturing could face opportunity in its absence. But leveraging these places requires recognizing that there’s more potential in an abandoned warehouse than another set of high-rent lofts.

“When we’ve done community planning, we’ve talked to people about what they want to see for these industrial sites,” says Scott Page, the principle planner with Interface Studio in Philadelphia. “In fact, they would rarely look at us and say, ‘Can’t they be condos?’ They would look at us and say, ‘You know what we need?’ We need jobs.’”

Page has worked in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Louisville, re-imagining unused industrial sites as the last thing anyone associates with their revival: more industry. But he’s talking about industry of a different kind, under a broader definition: not just the hulking manufacturing plant, but also to the artisanal woodworker who makes specialty wine racks out of salvaged debris. His “industry” also means medical device manufacturers, fabric designers, small-scale metalworkers, LED light-bulb factories, and distribution facilities.

Or, as the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation puts it, if you make it, move it or mend it, you’re industry. And when we raze and remediate old 19th and 20th century industrial sites, maybe we should consider keeping a lot of them zoned that way.

“There are some people who believe that the industrial boat has sailed, that manufacturing has left, we’re losing out to other countries, so should we really be smoke-stack chasing?” says Page (although, literally speaking, the industry he’s talking about generally doesn’t come with smoke stacks). “I think there is a lot of hope for industrial use in this country. The question is, are we taking the best advantage of the assets that we have?”

One of the Infill Philadelphia sites
The planned vision for the same site

Often, these plots are primed for re-use for the same reasons they were strategically sited in the first place – they’re near rivers, railways, or residential neighborhoods that once supplied workers and could do the same again. And expanding our view of what brownfields could become could not only help us tackle transportation, livability, and employment challenges, but also serve communities from the condo buyer to the low-income unemployed (there’s even a burgeoning brownfield-to-table movement).

In Philadelphia, the industrial development corporation and the city worked with the Community Design Collaborative to challenge planners to re-imagine several local brownfield sites. One of the plans in the Infill Philadelphia project imagines a mixed industrial-housing site, complete with daycare and a fresh food market. It sounds like something that would be impossible to do under current zoning requirements.

“But what if you could?” asks Beth Miller, the CDC’s executive director. “What would it take to do that and what would be the value of that?”

The project sought to connect the idea of brownfield redevelopment with images that people could hold onto, and it’s helped spur imagination in Philadelphia.

“In one way, you never want industry to leave, you never want jobs to leave and all the stuff that comes along with that,” said Jon Edelstein, the city’s director of sustainable development. “But by the same token, there’s the ability to recreate yourself and become stronger. Once facts are on the ground and things are operating, you can’t do anything. But when you do have certain amounts of vacancy – we’d rather not have any, but to the extent that we do – it’s one of those things where you look for the opportunity.”

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.