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Oakland to host workshop on redevelopment of toxic land

on May 3, 2012

With California’s powerful redevelopment agencies and their corresponding powers now either extinct or on the fence, Oakland and other cities are facing a new problem: how to make use of toxic lands within their jurisdiction.

On Thursday, May 3, Oakland will be hosting a one-day workshop with experts from the Environmental Protection Agency for developers interested in building in Oakland on how to finance toxic remediation–the oftenexpensive process of reducing toxic compounds to make a piece of land suitable for human activity.  The last of eight events across the state, the workshop is especially important this year given the loss of state legislation which streamlined the remediation and transfer of toxic lands in cities.

An annual event, the May 3 workshop, which will be hosted at Regional Water Quality Control Board at 1515 Clay Street downtown, is expected to bring together different people involved in property development in Oakland.

“We expect representatives of local governments, environmental consultants, property owners and other interested parties to attend,” says Maryam Tasnif-Abbasi, Brownfields Coordinator for Cleanup Operations for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, a state body which is helping to organize the event.

In 2007, California had between 150,000 and 200,000 so-called “brownfields,”or areas contaminated with toxic chemicals, according to an estimate by the Center for Creative Land Recycling, a San Francisco non-profit.  Many of these were former industrial sites, including old factories and trucking lots, but also abandoned gas stations and dumps.  While some sites were more contaminated than others, state and federal laws require that even the possibility of contamination requires a piece of land to be remediated before it can be used.

To fast forward development of these sites, in 1990, state legislators passed the Polanco Redevelopment Act, which granted California’s more than 400 redevelopment agencies the power to front the cost of remediation before transferring lands to developers.  Supporters contend the Polanco Act made these otherwise difficult transactions practical.  But since last December, when the California Supreme Court upheld the state’s decision to eliminate redevelopment agencies entirely as a cost cutting measure, the Polanco Act has been on the rocks–a development which some observers are calling an unintended consequence of eliminating redevelopment statewide.

For a developer, buying a brownfield is rarely an attractive option.  Environmental clean ups are often extremely expensive affairs–even small projects can cost between $250,000 and $500,000 while larger ones cost in the millions, Lawson says.  They also carry the risk of a future lawsuit if toxins ever reemerge to contaminate the area.  But under the Polanco Act, a redevelopment agency could serve as a middle man, taking control of the undesirable land and fronting the cost of remediation with bonds, then killing any possibility of a future environmental lawsuit for the new owner.  Left to the market alone, these deals would be a hard sell for developers intent on avoiding risk.

Few California cities made a more concerted effort to utilize its redevelopment agency or the Polanco Act than Oakland.  Since the agency’s formation in 1956, its resources were used to build retail downtown and affordable housing in West Oakland.  As a former industrial hub, Oakland found the Polanco Act especially useful for making new uses out of numerous formal industrial sites along the waterfront and near the port.

A bill currently in the state legislature would grant the powers of the Polanco Act to the so-called “successor agencies”– local entities tasked with spending the last of their respective redevelopment agency’s funds before dissolving.  But Kristina Lawson, a San Francisco-based environmental attorney, says the true power of redevelopment agencies came from their ability to buy up land and secure outside financing–powers lost on the successor agencies.  The Polanco Act only worked because it extended powers to an already powerful agency, giving it the ability to clean up environmentally hazardous areas.

“If you don’t have an agency to buy those properties, then the Polanco powers don’t apply,” she says.

Redevelopment agencies were not without their controversy, however.  With limited public oversight, as well as the power to seize land through eminent domain and float bonds without voter approval, critics charged they were prone to abuse of power.  In fact, as of 2009-10 fiscal year, the Oakland redevelopment agency had accumulated a staggering $4.3 billion in debt, according to a report from the State Controller’s office.  In Oakland’s case, much of that debt was incurred by helping pay for the salaries of city personnel, including 16 police officers, four council members and the mayor herself.

Joe Tuman, a communications professor at San Francisco State University and former Oakland mayoral candidate, says this cash-strapped city‘s use of redevelopment finances to supplement its general fund is what led to the program’s demise.

“We really treated this like a credit card that we didn’t have to pay for,” he says. “We haven’t fixed toxic sites in Oakland.  These are problems that redevelopment can solve– which are really legitimate problems– which it no longer can.”


  1. […] Read the rest of the story by Alex Park at Oakland North. […]

  2. Noel on May 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    When is this workshop taking place, and how do I register? Thanks!

  3. Kenya Wheeler on May 9, 2012 at 5:46 am

    Alex, thanks for a great article on a timely topic – how to conduct urban development in California communities with contaminated lands in a post-redevelopment era. However, it pains me as an Oakland resident to admit that the article neglects to mention the most successful community in Northern California, if not the entire state to use the effective combination of Brownfield cleanup, Redevelopment law and the Polanco Redevelopment Act is Oakland’s neighbor of Emeryville, CA. As noted by a few articles I found on the web ( and (, Emeryville has been a leader in turning fallow lands into economically prosperous ground. The second link also notes that Emeryville helped to create a legal precedent for enforcing the Polanco act to charge the cost of cleaning up contaminated lands to the prior land owners. You may wish to update the article to add this information.

    As Tuman notes at the end of the article, redevelopment used in this fashion can be an effective tool for cleaning up and turning contaminated land to productive use. Hopefully the conference last week provided some insights on ways to continue these efforts in this post-redevelopment era. A follow-up article on the May 3rd workshop would be awesome.

  4. […] appeals and demands, but the fact here is that West Oakland is another fenceline community, teetering in the balance of political […]

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