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Blighted industrial sites home of new development

The Associated Press
Monday August 20, 2001

EMERYVILLE — Ten years ago, this sliver of a town was a blighted urban joke of the Bay Area, a smokestack hamlet that became an apparition of tattered warehouses and dead industrial buildings. Below ground was worse. 

The dirt held a devil’s cauldron of solvents, heavy metals and 55-gallon barrels of chemicals buried before World War II. 

“Arsenic, pesticides, petroleums. It had the works,” says Ignacio Dayrit, a City Hall redevelopment specialist. 

But today, experts call Emeryville a leader and national model in remaking industrial wastelands. 

Wherever you go in Emeryville, thanks to a prime location and the Bay Area’s 1990s high tech explosion, there are new lofts and apartments, hotels and entertainment centers on cleaned-up land. 

This success and others like it, including the California Speedway built over an extinct Kaiser Steel site in Fontana, are proving enviable. As suburban growth becomes constrained and people flock to central cities, municipalities and land developers view thousands of blighted acres as growth’s new frontier. Some estimate the state has 90,000 vacant sites behind barbed wire and chain link fences. 

Though states like Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are considered trailblazers in brownfields development, California has more sites than any other state, says Stephanie Shakofsky, director of the California Center for Land Recycling. 

At the state Capitol, legislators are awakening to possibilities for these so called “brownfields.” 

Now beneath the Capitol dome, cities, environmentalists, lawyers, state agencies, developers and insurance companies are jostling over who will clean them up and to whose standards. 

One proposal symbolizes the struggle. A bill that would give cities new power to investigate vacant sites for possible contamination and force cleanups is being heard Tuesday by the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, which killed it last year and a competing bill this year. 

Author Sen. Martha Escutia, a Democrat who represents vacant industrial areas east of Los Angeles, wants to build central-city housing on the cleaned up sites. 

Escutia says California cities are up against thousands of land owners who prefer not to know what’s beneath their property. Many, fearing huge cleanup costs and liability, have simply fenced off their land. They neither sell nor develop. 

But other powerful interests have their own ideas. Environmentalists say Escutia’s approach is not strict enough and business says it’s too strict. 

Meanwhile, as debate continues in Sacramento, Emeryville is beginning its biggest brownfields project yet. Near the city’s IKEA furniture and home store, a developer is planning the Emeryville Town Center. The Main Street mix of condominiums, stores and entertainment occupies land that once housed a lime and sulfur plant, paint pigment manufacturer, trucking company and insecticide plant. 

Robert Doty, an attorney who guided Emeryville through the cleanup, calls this simple real estate economics.  

“Projects that were once thought of as ‘Oh God, don’t go there,’” he says, “are now being developed with some very nice features.”