Energy & Environment

EPA Grant Set To Help Redevelop Contaminated Sites In Underserved Houston Neighborhoods

The sites include a former incinerator, thermal processing facility and two abandoned commercial high rises.

A former filling station in Near Northside. Houston is targeting sites like this for clean-up through a recent federal grant.

The city of Houston will use $600,000 in federal funds to begin the cleanup process of blighted and contaminated sites in underserved neighborhoods, including a former thermal processing facility and a railyard.

The grant is part of the EPA's brownfields program, which focuses on rehabilitating former industrial and commercial sites that are often harder to redevelop because of contamination or stigma associated with them.

“This program is designed to empower cities and other stakeholders to assess, safely cleanup and sustainably reuse brownfields,” said Ronnie Crossland, the Region 6 Director of the EPA's Land, Chemicals and Redevelopment Division. “This process in turn helps address economic, environmental, public health and social issues associated with brownfields.”

The EPA awarded more than $66 million in grants to municipalities across the country. The city will use its grant to assess and prepare cleanup plans for brownfield sites primarily in the East End, Near Northside, Kashmere Gardens and Gulfton.

“Almost every one of those neighborhoods has a former gas station on a corner or a light commercial property that may have been vacant for many years and needs some assessment to kind of nudge it forward,” said Anne Haynes, the CEO of the Houston Land Bank.

A brownfield site in the East End.

In addition to former gas stations, some of the other sites targeted for clean-up include a former tile manufacturing facility, the 43-acre Hardy Yards railyard site and two abandoned commercial high-rise buildings that could be used for affordable housing.

“One of the issues is that these sites often are kind of stuck because perhaps the owner or the prior owner didn’t know how to move it forward,” Haynes said. “It may be sitting for sale for a long time, but for doing some of this initial planning and assessment, which actually provides a clearer path towards redevelopment.”

The Houston Land Bank works with local community groups to determine the best use for the site, whether that's affordable housing, a park or commercial development. What the site can be used for also depends on how contaminated it is, which is determined during the assessment phase.

“Many of the sites that we’ll look at will have really minor contaminants, if none, and it’s really a perception issue,” Haynes said. “Those can be really used for anything, depending on how the neighborhood would like to see that site developed.”

Mark Wooten, the program coordinator for the city's Brownfields Redevelopment Program, said the program usually partners with local groups that already have strategic plans in place, such as working with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership to turn brownfields into parks, or working with the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation to turn an abandoned hospital into a mixed-use housing unit.

"Our brownfield program is like a catalyst program to help get projects off the ground," Wooten said.

Since 2007, Houston has received more than $2 million in funding from the EPA for brownfield redevelopment, according to the federal agency.

Some of Houston's iconic spots were once brownfields, including Minute Maid Park, Discovery Green and the Downtown Aquarium. The current project to turn a former landfill in Sunnyside into a solar farm is also part of the city's brownfields program.

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