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Buried treasure: dealing with Winnipeg's 'brownfields'

Winnipeg's failure to offer incentives and encourage development on former industrial land is an expensive mistake that contributes to urban sprawl, critics say

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/2/2012 (2002 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THEY'RE polluted, abandoned and scattered across Winnipeg.

And the city has no plan in place to deal with them.

The Youth for Christ building


The Youth for Christ building

Across Winnipeg, there are patches of "brownfields" -- empty or underused plots of land that were once occupied by some kind of industrial business. Sometimes they're contaminated and other times there's simply a concern they might be. They can be small chunks of land on which gas stations sat, or large areas that used to be home to factories or rail yards.

They all have one thing in common: They're tricky to redevelop.

The Fort Rouge Yards is a good example of how a polluted brownfield can be cleaned up.

Gem Equities, a company owned by developer Andrew Marquess, plans to turn a seven-hectare strip of industrial land into a 900-unit townhouse, condominium and commercial development alongside the city's first rapid-transit corridor. While the city's decision to backstop a loan for the infill project raised questions about the financial risks, Marquess said soil remediation is nearly complete on the former rail yard, and the cleanup was something he factored into the total cost of redevelopment.

Though he would not disclose the cost of remediation, Marquess said it isn't cheap.

"It's not an inexpensive proposition," he said. "Clearly, if you have two pieces of dirt and they have the same value, the one that's contaminated is going to cost you more. You have to factor that into your projections and say, 'Is this a good deal or not a good deal?' "

And that's the problem: Many such sites sit idle because the cost of cleanup deters developers. Clean land is faster, cheaper and easier to develop than polluted land. It's difficult to gauge the scope of contamination until you start digging, and remediation can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few million dollars, depending on what lurks beneath the surface.

If you take a spin through the old industrial haunts in south Point Douglas, brownfields are easy to find. City planning documents show three parcels of riverfront land that have been deemed contaminated, six that have been affected by pollutants and more than a dozen sites of potential concern.

Unlike some Canadian cities that have offered incentives and rebates for companies to step in, clean up and revamp contaminated land, Winnipeg has no formal policy on brownfields. That's unfortunate, according to experts who say solid policies can help turn them into something profitable for the city.

"It takes a dedicated city council to say, 'We've got this problem, what can we do about it?' " said Angus Ross, spokesman for the non-profit Canadian Brownfields Network. "It's a concern if contamination is coming off of them, but it also means that a real source of revenue, a source of social improvement is being missed. You tend to end up with the sprawl of cities."

Manitoba Conservation keeps track of all reported properties in the province that have been contaminated by accidental spills, leaks or former industries.

Currently, there are more than 800 reported sites in Winnipeg, many of which are former gas stations, auto-body shops or businesses that stored petroleum.

Dean Kasur, manager of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship's environmental services, said properties are usually reported to the province during real-estate sales. He said banks want to know if the property is on the 'contaminated' list or if there are any concerns the land could be polluted from past uses. Kasur said banks want the site to be inspected so any issues are identified before they lend money.

Contamination cannot be confirmed until engineers dig holes in the ground and send samples of soil and groundwater for testing.

Of the hundreds of sites in the province's current database, Kasur said only about nine have ever been formally designated as "contaminated," which means they could pose a risk to people and the surrounding environment. Two have been removed from the list and seven others -- including the former Domtar wood treatment plant and IKO shingle plant -- are still on it.


For the most part, Kasur said, the others are considered "impacted" by contaminants. They may exceed environemntal guidelines for certain pollutants, but at levels where they do not pose a risk. Some sites have already been cleaned up, and others are being monitored. Either way, these sites are on file forever.

Kasur said it's impossible to guess how many other contaminated sites are out there they don't know about. Manitoba's conservation branch relies on property owners to report problems with contaminants.

The province does not track how many of these reported sites are considered brownfields.

Tracts of old industrial land in Point Douglas and St. Boniface have been identified as potential spots to redevelop. The idea is simple: take former industrial sites and turn them into some form of infill that can accommodate new businesses or homes.

Higher-density projects can help offset the cost of cleanup, which is why big cities such as Toronto don't have policies to target brownfield redevelopment.

Joseph D'Abramo, Toronto's acting director of zoning and environmental planning, said developers can afford to build on contaminated land since they know they can recoup the cost of cleanup. Selling condos in a 60-storey highrise easily offsets the price of remediating soil on the land, he said. Plus, most builders dig a hole and remove the soil anyway to install underground parking.

Winnipeg is different.


Ross said the value of land in Winnipeg isn't as high as in larger cities, so developers likely favour lower-density developments in the suburbs rather than remediating former industrial sites in the city centre.

While Winnipeg's long-term planning blueprint promotes brownfield redevelopment, there is no formal policy on how to help facilitate it.

The city offers tax credits to promote infill development, and officials said remedial work is done according to provincial guidelines and is part of the development approval process. City officials refused to speak further with the Free Press about the issue and did not respond to questions about how many hectares of brownfields exist in Winnipeg and how -- or if -- they plan to encourage their redevelopment.

"There is no specific policy, so there is nothing further to add," spokeswoman Michelle Bailey said in an email statement.

By comparison, other mid-sized cities have tackled the problem head-on.

Kingston, Ont., created a task force to come up with a strategy and now offers rebates to developers who decide to revamp brownfields.

Paul MacLatchy, Kingston's director of environment and sustainability, said the city wants to get rid of contaminated land and get new property tax dollars at the same time. The program is modelled after Hamilton's, where the cost of remediating land is rebated to developers through property-tax considerations.

MacLatchy said Kingston has offered a half-dozen rebates for brownfield redevelopments since 2005, including one project that turned a contaminated locomotive factory on the waterfront into condos, an apartment and a hotel. In that case, MacLatchy said, the cost of remediation was $10 million.

"It's a way to avoid sprawling. It's a much more efficient use of land," he said.

Ross said cities have a choice of how to develop, and it helps if city council endorses a plan on renewal and cleanup of the sites. Typically, old industrial areas are located in the city core, Ross said, and such policies help curb sprawl to the outskirts.

Montreal and the Province of Quebec have had tremendous success, he said, by earmarking money to help remediate and redevelop the sites. Some Canadian cities have been slow to make progress on brownfields and policies are "patchy," he said, compared to parts of the United States and Europe where this has been done for years.

"It brings life back to the city," Ross said. "It doesn't mean it has to be built up. It could be turned into parkland."


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Updated on Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 8:49 AM CST: added photo

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