Making Something New Out of the Abandoned Steel Mill Land (Brownfields) Along the Mahoning River Corridor
What is a “Brownfield”?
Brownfields are abandoned or under-utilized industrial or commercial properties that are commonly perceived as environmentally suspect due to their historic use.
A brownfield may have at one time accommodated anything from a large industrial facility, such as a steel mill, to small establishments, such as gasoline stations or dry cleaners. As a typical consequence, real or imagined environmental contamination hinders the property’s redevelopment. By historical definition, brownfields are located near existing transportation infrastructure and a skilled work force; unfortunately, however, the stigma (of polluted soil) that quickly associates itself with such environmentally questionable property often overshadows such benefits.
Brownfield reclamation, however, is recycling on a grand scale and at its most effective. It has the power to generate new jobs, new sources of revenue, renewed community vitality, and new life as what was old once again becomes new and is returned to productive economic use. When done well, brownfield reclamation emphasizes sustainability and employs principles that have applicability to projects elsewhere. Productive reuse of brownfields results in the development of sustainable communities. Where brownfields are left under-utilized, the surrounding area tends to be subjected to extensive suburban sprawl and loss of farmland and greenfields.
The Significance of Brownfields Nationally and in the Mahoning Valley
Left idle, a brownfield can fall into a vortex where public misperceptions-perceptions regarding contamination and the property owner’s instinct for self-preservation generate a force all their own. Amid fears of the unknown and potential liability, the property owner typically refuses to sell. The idled land becomes a drain on the local tax base. Abandoned facilities deteriorate, becoming an unattractive nuisance subject to vandals. A thus-neglected property may enable unaddressed contamination to spread. Property values decline, clean-up costs multiply, and the value of neighboring properties suffers from, at best, guilt by association. Meanwhile, investors, fearing uncertain costs and potential legal liabilities, take their development dollars elsewhere.
Unless the community quickly pulls together to address redevelopment, a brownfield can soon become an eyesore and a legal, regulatory and financial nightmare, a drain on local tax revenues. Before long public services have to be cut and unemployment skyrockets. Barriers to brownfield redevelopment are many, and include “ambiguous legal liability (someone has to clean up any contamination and most individuals and companies don’t want that cost); lack of concentrated expertise; potentially substantial capital costs; insufficient financing; clouded federal, state and local environmental and legal policies; entrenched attitudes among regulators; absence of a consistent redevelopment framework; public opposition; limited demand for redeveloped sites; and competition from greenfields.”1
Since 1990, these barriers to brownfield redevelopment have prompted the United States Environmental Protection Agency to reevaluate the pros and cons of the Superfund program (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, also known as CERCLA). Of note, Superfund came into effect at the same time that the lands that had accommodated the American steel industry were sitting idle for the first time in generations. Unfortunately, as the environmental law that governed the re-use of these lands and others, Superfund effectively adorned these properties with figurative red flags.
Under CERCLA, the very real potential existed for a new owner to be held liable for a previous owner’s environmental misconduct, and the declaration that a piece of property was “contaminated” brought to mind the extremes of Love Canal and other environmental disasters without presenting any opportunities or encouragement for remediation or reclamation. Additionally, banks and other institutions feared the genuine possibility that they would be held liable if environmental hazards weren’t recognized, clearly identified and properly handled before a sale. Meanwhile private investment was further discouraged by inconsistencies between state and federal environmental law.
Ironically, the end result of the Superfund legislation, conceived to correct past environmental damage and prevent future environmental contamination, was practically the exact opposite. The regulatory risks associated with these sites influenced developers to invest their dollars elsewhere, and businesses looking to expand opted for the relatively safety of either the suburbs or rural America’s “greenfields.” At the heart of urban communities, old brownfields sat neglected while surrounding areas endured the unchecked expansion of urban sprawl.
In an effort to not only remove less contaminated sites from the Superfund list but also to inspire investment and the reintroduction of income-generating properties into local economies, the USEPA began to develop separate means to handle brownfields.
In the 1990s the Clinton administration pursued policies whereby environmental clean-up could compliment economic development, in effect promoting the concept that being “green” could be profitable. Aspects of Superfund were changed, pilot programs were developed and partnerships were encouraged. With the advent of the George W. Bush White House, additional funding was legislated for clean-up as well as legal protection for those tackling urban decay via brownfield restoration. Washington embraced the concept that urban decay dissipates as reclaimed brownfields attract new economic investment, provide jobs and generate tax revenue.
For the Mahoning Valley, where for well over half a century nine major steel mills poured up to 485,000 pounds of solid wastes and chemicals a day into the river, the only choice for survival is to make the most of such opportunities for brownfield reclamation. Encouraging balanced, sustainable, economically viable, environmentally responsible clean-up and redevelopment through promoting efficient use of land and existing infrastructure, and advocating cooperation that transcends political boundaries, will lead to a strong diversified local economy.
A Brief History of the Mahoning Valley and the Role Brownfields Have Played
John Young arrived in the Mahoning Valley in the 1790s and other settlers of the new United States of America soon followed. They quickly discovered their area was rich in natural resources, including limestone, coal and iron ore, and the river was a natural transportation corridor.
From the early 1800s on, the historical development of the Mahoning Valley paralleled the development of the iron and steel industries. At that time two small iron furnaces were built in Poland Township on the banks of Yellow Creek, a Mahoning River tributary. Production stumbled due to the War of 1812, but by 1819 the furnaces were producing at a steady rate, and the onset began of the sustained industrial activity that would dominate the Mahoning Valley over the next nearly 160 years.
In 1840 the Pennsylvania-Ohio Canal linked Youngstown to the Ohio River and Lake Erie; coal from the Mahoning Valley became important to companies in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The valley’s topography provided a natural corridor for transportation once again when the railroads arrived in the 1850s. Although this quickly led to the demise of the canals, a generation later it ensured a means to bring in iron ore from elsewhere as the valley’s own supplied diminished. The nationwide financial panic of 1873 gave early indications of the risks for the valley of total economic dependence on iron and related industries.
By the mid-1880s Youngstown had approximately a dozen rolling mills; the age of steel had begun. The area’s strategic location halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh meant it continued to have markets for its iron and coal. The valley also had large tracts of land available for large rolling mills, room for expansion and the storage of raw materials. By the 1890s the emphasis had switched from iron to steel, and in the second decade of the 20th century, despite the 1913 flood, local payroll quintupled. Following World War I the Youngstown region rose to the third largest producer of steel nationwide, behind the Pittsburgh and Chicago regions.
At one time industry thrived along the banks of the Mahoning. In the early 1970s the mills of the “Youngstown District” employed 65,000 people and three of the nation’s seven largest steel producers: U.S. Steel, Republic Steel, and Youngstown Sheet & Tube operated seven large mills in the Mahoning Valley. Then the American steel industry collapsed. Today only about 4,000 people throughout the entire region work in basic steel.
Of the nine fully integrated steel mills that dominated the banks of the Mahoning River in the 20th century, only one, Warren Consolidated Industries (WCI, the former Republic Steel Warren Works), remains along with a few specialty mills such as North Star Steel (the former Brier Hill Works of the now defunct Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.) and McDonald Steel (formerly U.S. Steel’s McDonald Mills). The majority of the others were razed, leaving only vacant brownfield land. A few industrial parks soon tried to plant roots in the ashes and engaged in some retrofitting of remaining structures, and some, like CASTLO, which transformed Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s Struthers Works, were successful, but for miles up and down the valley, the overwhelming sense was of barren and abandoned land, neglected.
As the valley struggled through the 1980s and into the 1990s, these empty stretches of land came to symbolize all that was going wrong. Hard-working people who’d never expected to find themselves on public relief not only found themselves collecting unemployment, but collecting it until the benefits ran out. Healthcare benefits ran out as well. Total population declined markedly as people left to find work elsewhere. While property values for the State of Ohio increased, Youngstown’s declined. Although the country was in the midst of a recession, few communities were dealing with the record unemployment levels found throughout the Mahoning Valley. For Mahoning County in November 1982 the rate was nearly 22 percent; that same month Trumbull County’s rate was nearly 24 percent.
With regard to the area’s brownfields, initially environmental matters were thought to be the biggest challenge. But it wasn’t long before community attitudes, maintenance of infrastructure, politics, long-term planning versus short-term gain and financial and regulatory issues came to the fore as well. The significance of these brownfields cannot be understated. It is estimated that there are more than 7,000 acres of prime brownfield land sites along the banks of the Mahoning River, representing major potential for well-planned new development.
USEPA Brownfield Assessment Demonstration Pilot Grants & the Mahoning Valley
The Brownfields Action Agenda of January 1995 generated the concept of USEPA Brownfield Assessment Demonstration Pilot Grants. Pilot projects are funded up to $200,000 for two years and are designed to test redevelopment models, direct special efforts toward removing regulatory barriers without sacrificing environmental protection, and facilitate community-based and coordinated input. The pilots are selected based on, among other things, need, evidence of community-based planning and involvement, and their anticipated long-term benefits and sustainability. They also provide myriad opportunities for communities to learn from one another.
Three Brownfield Assessment Demonstration Pilot Grants have been awarded in the Mahoning Valley. The one farthest upstream was awarded in June 1999 to the City of Warren for its River Edges-New Environment for Warren (RENEW) Plan. The five-mile-long Plan corridor contains a mixture of residential, commercial, and light manufacturing properties including three unregulated dump sites and the former Mahoningside power plant. The RENEW Plan includes revitalization of the downtown area, focusing on Warren’s recreational systems, including parks, bike and walk pathways, and wildlife sanctuaries that parallel the Mahoning River. The RENEW Plan corridor is also a link in the proposed multi-purpose 90-mile recreational GreenWay Trail.
Traveling down the Mahoning River, the next brownfield pilot targets the 27-acre former Ohio Leather Company site in the City of Girard. Awarded in March 1999, the grant is being used for clean-up and redevelopment of the property which accommodated processing facilities for calfskin leather for more than 70 years. After closing in 1972, the plant, located near the gateway to the city, sat idle for almost two decades until a 1995 fire destroyed all existing buildings on the site. A disadvantaged neighborhood, an active specialty steel plant (Syro Steel) and the Mahoning River border the site, a quarter of which was used at one time for storage of scrap titanium for reuse in the steel industry. Located in a state-designated enterprise zone, the acreage is also littered with scrap tires, used grinding wheels, brick and other debris. As Girard works to alleviate environmental and aesthetic problems on the site, it is also employing sustainable reuse principles to ensure that future use of the property will play a role in the long-term sustainability of the Mahoning River corridor.
The third, and oldest, Brownfield Assessment Demonstration Pilot grant in the valley was awarded via the City of Youngstown for the Mahoning River Corridor of Opportunity (MRCO) in July 1998. The 1,470-acre MRCO brownfield stretches across the borders of Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers and is a state-designated Enterprise Zone. The pilot grant targets various areas within the MRCO for assessment, clean-up and redevelopment, including the riparian corridor; several industrial park sites; and several proposed bridge roadway access routes.
The Mahoning River Corridor of Opportunity: A Case Study
In 1991 the Mahoning River Redevelopment Project (MRRP) was begun by the area’s U.S. congressman, the Regional Growth Alliance of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and the Youngstown State University Urban Studies Center.
The MRRP’s purpose was to inventory brownfield sites along a 34-mile stretch of the Mahoning River, from Leavittsburgh to the Pennsylvania state line, in conjunction with the river’s nine waterfront municipalities (Leavittsburg, Warren, Niles, McDonald, Girard, Youngstown, Campbell, Struthers, and Lowellville). Via this process, brownfields of all sizes that individually were attracting little attention from developers were estimated to total 7,000 acres and were recognized collectively as a significant asset to the area.
More than 20 percent of those brownfields are located within the cities of Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers. Thus in June 1995 Dan Mamula, Struthers’ mayor, championed the creation of the MRCO, a public/private partnership, to facilitate the reclamation, redevelopment and promotion of 1,470 acres of industrial brownfield along the river. Over the years, players on the MRCO team have come to include Struthers, Campbell and Youngstown, CASTLO Community Improvement Corporation, YSU, the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Mahoning County, development representatives from the state and various utility companies, and several major private landowners.
The MRCO property could accurately be described as the heart of the Mahoning Valley. In its heyday, this was the most vibrant industrial corridor not only in the region or in Ohio, but in the entire United States; it was aptly nicknamed “The American Ruhr.” In the early 1970s industries within its acreage provided employment for nearly 20,000; 20 years later mills stood vacant and the few companies located there employed only 1,750, an almost ten-fold reduction in revenues and employment. The site, however, remains zoned to support heavy industry and features a ready infrastructure in close proximity to the interstate highway system and traversed by two Class One rail carriers, CSXT and Norfolk & Southern, with the latter operating a major rail service yard, and a short line, the Ohio Central.
To transform the devastation left by the fall of the steel industry, the MRCO’s integrated model for redevelopment relies on a variety of enterprises along the way; industries that are smaller, more sustainable and less hazardous to the surrounding residents and natural habitat; and businesses that blend their missions responsibly with the adjacent Mahoning River and the area’s recreational attributes.
Remediation of the MRCO site promises to serve the surrounding population, which includes many low-income minority and disadvantaged residents, by affording more job opportunities near their homes and neighborhoods. The area is sandwiched between residential neighborhoods to the north and south, with commercial downtowns to the east in Struthers and to the west in Youngstown; at one time, nearby residents walked to work in the steel mills. Remediation and redevelopment will restore elements of a sustainable community, with residential, industrial, commercial and recreational activities in a concentrated area.
Moreover, affected disadvantaged populations will benefit environmentally and economically from the site’s location within the Youngstown public transportation network (making travel convenient to the general population) and from natural barriers on the site that will prevent potential adverse disruption of adjacent neighborhoods.
For the MRCO the issues requiring attention have included environmental concerns, funding, more immediate accessibility via roadway, restoration of on-site infrastructure, economic development, marketability and gaining the support and cooperation of private landowners and the general public through education and communication.
In 2002 the MRCO actively worked on several fronts. With the assistance of the URS Corporation of Cleveland and by incorporating public input, a master plan for the entire 1,470-acre brownfield has been completed (See MRCO Master Plan). The finished plan focuses on how to protect natural resources while promoting the re-use of this land via prioritized various capital improvements, including roadway construction and efficient parceling of the land for future development. On another front, the MRCO is assisting in the planning for a new $3 million Walton Avenue bridge to improve access to the site’s interior and serve Casey Industrial Park in the City of Campbell.
In addition, USEPA Sustainable Development Challenge Grant monies are enabling the coordination of sustainable development efforts by cities and townships through the Mahoning River corridor; development and maintenance of an integrated system of riparian corridors, recreational areas and green space along that corridor; promotion of the development of brownfield property in the MRCO and elsewhere along the river for use by businesses and industries with a strong commitment to environmental protection and sustainability; and helping to create a positive attitude about the Mahoning River.
Several industrial parks, of various ages and at various stages of their development, are located within the MRCO. In particular, CASTLO Industrial Park anchors the eastern end and demonstrates the type of positive redevelopment that’s possible. The park rose from the remains of an industrial ghost town of 11 buildings on 120 acres of the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company’s abandoned Struthers Works, the rod and wire division of the steel giant.
In the years since the property’s purchase in 1980, with the assistance of the Ohio Department of Development, new roadways have been built, utilities updated, rail rights-of-way improved and railroad sidings modernized; imposing buildings with handsome brick facades and turn-of-the-(19th-to-20th)-century architectural flair have been restored to their original beauty and retrofitted with the best modern materials and design, street lighting and landscaping have been added, and space is available for new construction. In a park-like setting that resembles a college campus more than an industrial park, tenants run their businesses in 3,000- to 100,000-square-foot spaces where rod, wire, railroad spikes and conduit pipe were once made.
With 4,000 feet of riverfront property, CASTLO is also committed to a clean Mahoning River. The CASTLO board contributed $1,000 of the $75,000 needed to advance the Mahoning River Environmental Remediation Study (the second of four phases in the river restoration) to its $3-million-feasibility phase (to be implemented from 2002 through 2004) and CASTLO is active in the Mahoning River Consortium which has as its purpose enhancing and improving the quality of life throughout the entire Mahoning River watershed.
In an era when former industrial properties are too often left to decay or are cleared and rehabilitated at great cost, CASTLO is a monumental accomplishment in recycling. Using the existing buildings cost half as much as constructing a new industrial park from scratch. CASTLO has been an active and productive member of the MRCO team from the outset.
In addition to MRCO’s receipt of the Brownfield Assessment Demonstration Pilot designation, it has been recognized by the Mid-America Economic Development Council with a “Marketing for Results” award and in 1999 was one of only 15 groups nationwide selected to receive the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties first annual Joint Center Sustainable Community Award.
While not the complete brownfields picture for the cities of Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers (overall, it is estimated that 80 percent of the land available for development in these communities is brownfield), the MRCO demonstrates that brownfield redevelopment can benefit from the expertise, resources and cooperation of a diverse group of people. As an entity that works across political and economic boundaries, the MRCO represents the ultimate potential for joint district redevelopment.
Future Opportunities: Where Public Officials are Headed
Obstacles to brownfield redevelopment are beginning to diminish as various state and federal programs and legislation enable private parties to initiate clean-ups and work cooperatively with state agencies with a minimum of red tape. Through working with the USEPA, state voluntary clean-up programs (like Ohio’s voluntary Real Estate Reuse and Clean-up Program, which became law in September 1994) “generally provide that USEPA will not, absent extraordinary circumstances posing an imminent danger to human health and the environment, initiate any federal action under CERCLA for sites that have been successfully addressed under the state’s Voluntary Clean-up Program.” 2 The tax abatements, tax credits and low-interest loans provided as incentives further encourage the remediation of contaminated sites. Moreover, the clean-up standards established keep in mind the intended use of the property being cleaned up and redeveloped. The various standardized levels cover residential land-use, commercial land-use and industrial land-use and are graduated accordingly.
To the Mahoning Valley’s advantage, in January 2002 the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development designated the City of Youngstown as the first of 40 “Renewable Communities” to be awarded nationwide. Among the multiple incentives available to businesses within such communities is the eligibility of qualified clean-up costs in brownfield areas for tax deductions.
Local elected officials are working on a number of levels to best promote a healthy economic future for all. While on one level they seek to maximize legislative opportunities to pursue brownfield redevelopment, on another they endeavor to engage community leaders, citizens and youth in educational and participatory process. They continue to look for and actively court new industry that is environmentally friendly and that values quality of life for its employees, from recreational to neighborhood environmental amenities.
They are also beginning to mobilize efforts to obtain two important regional district designations: Ohio Scenic Byway and National Heritage Corridor, which could evolve into the Mahoning River Scenic Byway and Heritage corridor, complete with a connected hike and bike trail that hooks into the Great Ohio Lake to River Greenway. Such a development would serve to reconnect this Valley to the cities and the nation that once depended so completely on the steel produced here.
And they are pursuing means to facilitate the ecological restoration of the river that is the heart of the Mahoning Valley. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has selected the Mahoning as one of five rivers nationwide scheduled for clean-up; the reconnaissance phase is already completed and the present feasibility phase will determine how to proceed. The targeted date for completion is 2017. A clean river will be one local officials can promote as an asset in redevelopment plans for their communities and on which they can encourage development of recreational and environmental amenities.
Across the United States there appears to be growing recognition that the success of brownfield redevelopment requires fostering of cooperation. In the Mahoning Valley, local political entities have come to appreciate that combining efforts allows each entity to draw on the expertise of others and adds greater political weight to grant applications. Additionally, any problems that arise along the way are better addressed through teamwork. It is a process that requires dialogue, planning, priority setting and action; the Mahoning Valley’s political bodies are getting good at it.
“A clean Mahoning River could do much to change the way this region is viewed, not to mention the way it views itself. There likely would be an indirect economic impact as well ... The Mahoning River has not been a useful part of the region’s economy for many years, and seeing it back in that role would be a nice change.”3 The costs will be tremendous; the benefits, however, will be a sustainable gift to the generations of the future.
CASTLO Community Improvement Corporation (brownfield redevelopment by the communities of Campbell, Struthers, and Lowellville on steel mill land along the Mahoning River).
Mahoning River Corridor of Opportunity Master Plan http://www.cityofstruthers.com/PDFStruthers/MAHONING.PDF
Ohio EPA Brownfields website www.epa.gov/brownfields
Community effort to reclaim brownfield in Pittsburgh through Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania
Comprehensive Overview of Brownfields in cooperation with US Dept. of Transportation; Housing & Urban Development; US Army Corps of Engineers; US Environmental Protection Agency
The Brownfields Technology Support Center is a cooperative effort to provide technical support to federal, state, and local officials on items related to use of technology for site investigation and cleanup. Partners in the Center include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Argonne National Laboratory, and from the Northeast Hazardous Substance Research Center through the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Great Lakes Regional Online Brownfields Information Network http://www.glc.org/robin/