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Op-Ed: Housing 1st for P.R.’s recovery, but let’s not forget the brownfields

Author David Southgate is the Center for Creative Land Recycling’s Special Advisor for its brownfields technical assistance program and Sustainability Project Director for Desarrollo Integral del Sur Inc. (DISUR). He can be reached at david@davidsouthgate.com.

Puerto Rico’s essential infrastructure is largely repaired following last year’s Hurricanes Irma and María. Now the concerted focus turns to rebuilding a better, more resilient Puerto Rico.

With nearly 340,000 Puerto Rico families denied FEMA aid and the alarming news of a huge death toll, safe affordable housing is a first priority and one that has emerged with the federal government’s authorization of a $1.5 billion Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Of those fund, $132.5 million is dedicated to new housing. But where will those units be built?

Instead of reusing idle and previously used sites, Puerto Rico has followed the unsustainable North American suburban development model, meaning that new homes are built on virgin lands.

For an island, suburban sprawl is especially problematic. It consumes finite green space, stresses already deficient infrastructure, and in the past, has resulted in homes built on floodplains and unstable terrain.

A resilient and sustainable approach to rebuilding Puerto Rico should consider “brownfields,” those vacant properties where possible environmental contamination or the presence of hazardous materials have hindered sales and redevelopment.

There are easily a thousand brownfields in Puerto Rico, between closed gas stations, shuttered public schools, vacant PRIDCO facilities, other light industrial sites, empty lots and storefronts in downtowns across the island.

It makes economic and planning sense to recycle already used lands and their existing sewage, potable water and electrical infrastructure for new housing ventures.

Mayors are hungry for know-how, financial resources, and developers to revitalize vacant and abandoned sites in their town centers. The Center for Creative Land Recycling’s recent Mayors’ Forum and 4th Brownfields Redevelopment Summit surveyed more than 30 percent of Puerto Rico municipalities, as well as two Commonwealth agencies that hold significant portfolios of land with environmental issues.

Overwhelmingly, mayors let us know that they need support navigating the legal, environmental, financing and marketing challenges associated with addressing brownfields.

Mayors told us that repopulating downtowns is part of an economic development strategy for Puerto Rico’s municipalities, and many identified the need to bring people back to urban centers with quality, affordable housing.

The first round of recovery dollars come as HUD Community Development Block Grants for Puerto Rico, to be administered through the Puerto Rico Department of Housing (PRDOH) in collaboration with Puerto Rico’s new agency the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3.)

These agencies are already collaborating with municipalities to identify priority projects. The possibility of creating housing projects on brownfield sites should be part of the mix of considered sites. Brownfields can readily be repurposed to be of service to Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable populations, among them the elderly and economically distressed families living in harm’s way.

Brownfields throughout the island’s urban centers should be included in the lists of sites for potential redevelopment, especially for families who are being relocated from floodplains.

CDBG-DR funds, with their emphasis on social interest housing and proximity to public transportation, grocery stores and other social and recreational amenities are a perfect match for redeveloping abandoned sites in urban centers.

Given the amount of hurricane damage to housing in Puerto Rico, making sure people are appropriately sheltered is the right priority. As sites are selected, municipalities concerned about becoming ghost towns should use this rebuilding opportunity to promote infill and repopulation of urban centers.

Communities support public policy that promotes solutions tied to green infrastructure and respect for nature in the process of rebuilding Puerto Rico, according to the Commission for Resilient Puerto Rico.  Resilient Puerto Rico is in an initiative of a trio of powerful philanthropies, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Their goal is to more effectively and equitably channel philanthropic and interagency resources from the public sector towards strengthening Puerto Rico’s built environment while promoting long-term economic and social development as part of recuperation and reconstruction strategies.

Among Resilient Puerto Rico’s early recommendations are the need to amend existing public policy to fix gaps that hinder resilient infrastructure in Puerto Rico, including public nuisance laws.

Luis Gallardo, who has studied Puerto Rico’s public nuisance laws, noted during CCLR’s Brownfields Summit that although a dozen such laws are on the books, they don’t offer a clear mechanism for dealing with the issue of blighted, abandoned sites, many of which may be brownfields.

Along with efforts to develop housing, the Commonwealth government and municipalities should clean up the messy legislation to enable municipalities to seize land when owners show no interest in maintaining or developing their properties.

There may be critics who say that cleaning up environmental contamination cannot be done, or that it adds too much time and cost to a project.  For those naysayers, consider the following: Environmental remediation of sites has positive spillovers for entire communities, catalyzing revitalized communities and improving the tax base for the Commonwealth and municipalities.

Sure, it takes time to clean up sites, but the time and cost of building out new infrastructure to serve sprawling suburbs without existing utilities also adds significantly to the time and cost of development projects.

Puerto Rico is poised to start recovery with the initial influx of CDBG-DR funds to redevelop the island in ways that can have positive impacts for people requiring safe, affordable housing.

Redeveloping brownfield sites in the process can help to turn around communities so that they can become vibrant economic and social centers.

If the brownfields are forgotten during Puerto Rico’s revitalization, they’ll still be hanging around when the winds of Hurricane María are a near whisper.

Comments (1)

  1. I surveyed and visited 20 empty PRIDCO buildings ten years ago in PR in towns full of unemployed former workers. What is the point of making high rises out of the foundations that can withstand hurricanes when the people can’t afford to even move, much less pay for new facilities built to code and costing a fortune to their capacity to pay?

    I can supply camp trailers cabled to the Earth as needed, but easily moved away. Super strong wind barriers are also possible, and my sites can also provide food growing towers to produce food and fish.

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