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Vision: How We Can Turn Foreclosed Strip Malls and Parking Lots into Parks

Turning foreclosed commercial properties into park networks could put people to work, raise real estate values and promote wise redevelopment.
 
 
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In the language of urbanism, “greenfields” usually means rural land at the metropolitan edge, where suburbia metastasizes. “Brownfields” are former industrial sites that could be redeveloped once they are cleaned of pollution. “Greyfields” — picture vast empty parking lots — refer to moribund shopping centers. Recently another such locution was coined: “redfields,” as in red ink, for underperforming, underwater and foreclosed commercial real estate.

Redfields describe a financial condition, not a development type. So brownfields and greyfields are often redfields, as are other distressed, outmoded or undesirable built places: failed office and apartment complexes, vacant retail strips and big-box stores, newly platted subdivisions that died aborning in the crash.

Now comes “Redfields to Greenfields,” a promising initiative aimed at reducing the huge supply of stricken commercial properties while simultaneously revitalizing the areas around them. (It’s a catchy title, if imprecise because it’s about re-establishing greenfields within developed areas, not about doing anything to natural or agricultural acreage at the urban margins.) The plan, in essence, is this: Determine where defunct properties might fit a metropolitan green-space strategy; acquire and clear them; then make them into parks and conservation areas, some permanent and some only land-banked until the market wants them again.

While it addresses the long-term challenges of greening cities and reversing sprawl, this idea is a response to immediate dilemmas: the oversupply, devaluation and abandonment of commercial real estate; the destabilization of banks by mounting commercial mortgage defaults; and persistent unemployment. “Regional planning efforts look at 20 years out, 50 years out, 100 years. But we need something now,” says Kevin Caravati, a senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. With support from the City Parks Alliance, a national advocacy group of parks professionals, conservancies and citizen groups, the institute developed an analytic methodology, focusing initially on metropolitan Atlanta.

The goal was to draft “a plan for how do we address the physical assets that remain behind” across a metro area after businesses fail and mortgages are foreclosed, Caravati explains. When a bank writes off its loss, he adds, “You say, ‘Well, the loan’s taken care of.’ Swell. Who’s going to take care of this 300,000-square-foot ugly piece of junk that’s sitting in our community?”

Redfields-to-greenfields studies have been completed for Cleveland, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. More are under way in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix and the Savannah-Hilton Head area. Implementing these plans would require considerable funding, of course, for buying distressed properties and hiring workers to demolish existing buildings and build park amenities. Advocates look to the federal government to commit already approved but never allocated money from existing economic stabilization and development sources such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The concept was presented at a White House meeting last June, where Derek Douglas, special assistant to the president for urban affairs on the Domestic Policy Council, identified the administration’s urban-policy concerns as economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. He declared, “If you take these three broad policy goals and you overlay them on redfields to greenfields, it’s a perfect match.”

While essential, government money is foreseen as only one source of funding, says Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a metropolitan planning organization, and chief operating officer of R2GA, the entity created to carry out the plan in metro Atlanta. “The second is what we call social capital — local philanthropic organizations who are interested in making a contribution towards green space.” The third envisioned source is private equity investors, a possibility that illuminates a signal innovation of the redfields-to-greenfields proposition.

 
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