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Greyfield Site Development and Environmental Assessments

Posted by Kevin Shannon on Sep 25, 2013 9:59:00 AM

My previous blog explored the path from converting a brownfield site to sustainable development and detailed a brief action plan. In this blog we discuss another type of site: the greyfield site. The term originates from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), and refers to an urban development with the following general characteristics:

  •  Developed after World War II

  • Economically obsolete

  • Outdated architecture

  • Marginal or failing infrastructure

  • Underutilized site

  • Blighted

  • Lacking reinvestment capital

The most notable of greyfield sites and the ones that most readily come to mind are shopping centers. Greyfield shopping centers themselves have received the unceremonious monikers of “dead malls” and “ghost boxes." In updating or completely redeveloping a greyfield shopping center site, a number of factors must be considered which could include:

  • Proposed land use

  •  Land use restrictions (i.e., zoning, general plan, etc.)

  • Deed restriction

  • Trade area demographics

  • Underlying parcel ownership

  • Existing leases

  • Easements

  • Vehicular access and internal circulation

  • Aesthetic conditions

  • Investment capital

  • Environmental regulatory compliance

Updating a Neighborhood Shopping Center: An Example of Small-Scale Redevelopment of a Greyfield Site

The Beach Promenade Commercial Center in the City of Huntington Beach is an example of a greyfield where certain environmental considerations were examined closely in order to plan its redevelopment carefully. Being a patron of the Promenade I am a witness to its transformation from an under-used shopping center to a bustling shopping village.  

Constructed decades ago, the Promenade exhibited characteristics typical of greyfields over time. In 2009, the Huntington Beach Planning Commission conducted a study session regarding its proposed rehabilitation. Let’s examine a few environmental considerations in detail. 

Vehicular Access:  The Promenade faced a major arterial roadway across a frontage road, which prohibited direct access to the central portion of the site. Access was available only at two locations at opposing ends of the site.  

Takeaway: Older sites will likely require reconfiguring vehicle access points. Urban planners, architects, and engineers must consider designing new vehicle access points that will allow motorists to conveniently enter the redeveloped greyfield sites. In addition, planners and real estate developers must understand the arterial roadway type. The arterial roadway in front of the Promenade is a state highway. In line with the accessibility to the area, the arterial roadway type also has implications to other factors such as projected vehicular traffic volume in the area and road traffic safety, among other things. Real estate developers must design greyfield redevelopment plans while considering such factors.

Aesthetic Conditions: The frontage road mentioned above provided off-street parking for the beach located close by. In addition, truck parking and the occasional “unofficial” used car sales lot occupied the frontage road. These conditions resulted in poor visibility from motorists and heavy traffic on the weekends.  

Takeaway: Greyfield sites such as old shopping centers may be used for unintended purposes that have the potential to drive away business, inhibit new leasing, and foster vandalism and crime.Therefore, developers and other stakeholders must also include safety features and area security elements in creating redevelopment plans for greyfield sites.

Infrastructure: Existing infrastructure at the Promenade required upgrading, replacement, or both. Water lines were upgraded, water meters were replaced, and existing curbs and gutters were repaired. In addition, a new access road off the major arterial was installed and the internal vehicular circulation was redesigned to meet the City’s Fire Department access requirements. 

Takeaway: Any greyfield infrastructure will almost certainly require updating, mostly because its outdated features can no longer keep up with the present environment. Aside from replacement of old fixtures, developers must also consider adding entirely new features, as was the case of adding a new access road for the Promenade, in order for the greyfield site to be more suited to the needs of its occupants in the present time. 

Land Use Regulations:  Depending on whether the greyfield is being rehabilitated or an entirely new land use is being proposed, land use regulations will be a significant part of the entitlement process. The Promenade required several land use entitlements in addition to standard grading and building permits.

Takeaway: Real estate developers must determine what the existing land use regulations allow and what they prohibit. Further, if the existing land use controls do not allow certain components of the proposal, then developers must ascertain remedies that will help in securing permits.

Environmental Regulatory Compliance:

Environmental regulatory compliance is critical because many jurisdictions require compliance prior to initiating construction activities. For example, in my state, compliance with the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) precedes any development or redevelopment activity, including even site preparation. Preparation and certification of environmental reports are necessary before a site can be developed, or in a greyfield’s case, redeveloped.  

In the case of the Promenade, under Class 1 of Section 15301, its existing facilities were deemed “Categorically Exempt” from the provisions of CEQA. The floor area of the existing structures of the Promenade was found to be less than 10,000 sq. ft. and is located in an area that is not environmentally sensitive.Therefore, under CEQA standards, the redevelopment of the Promenade is not seen to cause any substantial negative environmental impacts.

Regional Malls 

The Promenade is but one of many greyfield sites that have been rehabilitated or fully converted. At the other end of the spectrum from neighborhood shopping centers, such as the Promenade, are regional malls that are candidates for conversion to the following:

  • Mixed-Use Town Center or Urban District

  • Single-Use Development

  • Adaptive Reuse

  • Existing Mall Plus New Uses

  • Reinvested Mall

In 2005, the CNU in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published Malls into Mainstreets as an in-depth guide for transforming greyfields into communities. Also refer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s companion publication Smart Growth and Economic Success: Benefits For Real Estate Developers, Investors, Businesses, And Local Governments. The following are a few examples of successful transformations identified in this study: 

City Place, Long Beach, California: The historic street grid was reestablished and old mall was retrofitted so storefronts faced revived streets, rather than internal corridors.  

Belmar, Lakewood, Colorado: A greyfield site was transformed into a mixed-use development with retail, office, multi-family housing, and for-sale residential units. The housing included live-work units, townhouses, apartments, and condominiums and were adjacent to a new light rail station.  

Similar to the example set by the Promenade, rehabilitating or converting regional malls would require the same environmental considerations, but at a larger scale.

Summary

Greyfields have great potential in becoming exceedingly useful land areas, provided that real estate developers will take great care in transforming them. Developers concerned with converting greyfield sites must first conduct extensive site assessment before planning and preparing the area for further development. Assessments prior to any construction will ensure that the update and/or development of a greyfield will be optimized: the greyfield will be revolutionized to fit the changing needs of its occupants, while ensuring that no adverse environmental impact will ensue.

In addition to the foregoing, refer to my previous blogs on Environmental Compliance Reporting Reduces Business Risk and Environmental Compliance and Risk Registers.  

Identifying and analyzing environmental considerations requires expertise and knowledge. To find out how FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS) can provide knowledge in identifying risks and implementing sustainability, simply click the link below.

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