Reclaimed Brownfields Are Helping Turn Nashville Green

By Lee Rennick

Music City Center changed the face of downtown Nashville, but it also converted land that had been filled with old industrial buildings and warehouses that were unusable because they contained large swaths of chemical contaminants. Areas such as this are called brownfields. Conversion of these brownfields into green buildings is allowing the city to put into action growth plans written more than 20 years ago.

Beginning in the late 1990s, regional community leaders, especially those in Nashville, who saw the results of Atlanta’s unplanned growth, decided they needed to make sure that their city was better prepared for expansion.

At the same time, something called “New Urbanism” became a hot idea in community development circles. According to the Congress for the New Urbanism website, “it is a planning and development approach based on the principles of how cities and towns had been built for the last several centuries: walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces.”

Out of these two ideas, a number of master plans were created for Nashville: for SoBro, the Gulch, and along the waterfront.

With the success of Music City Center, Nashville’s downtown is being revitalized both physically and economically. The Music City Center alone generated an economic impact of $169 million dollars through the end of their fiscal 2016, almost doubling what they did in 2015.

What has made all this economic growth possible is the reclaiming of these brownfields. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Brownfields are properties that may have hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants present … Cleaning up and reinvesting in brownfields protects human health and the environment, reduces blight, and takes development pressures off green spaces and working lands.” It also increases economic health of an area, as it has in Nashville.

Before one of these brownfields can be built on, there are a number of steps that the land must go through.

First hire a competent environmental consultant,” says Christopher Green, an environmental group leader with TTL, Inc.The consultant will need to complete a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA). A Phase I ESA identifies the historical use of a property and identifies if there are any environmental liabilities associated with the property… (and it) will identify if there are any recognized environmental conditions (RECs)...”

Once the Phase I assessment is complete, according to Green, often a Phase II Investigation may be recommended. During this investigation, samples are collected that will identify if contamination is present and the extent of cleanup.

Another reason to hire an environmental consulting company is that it can provide a builder with options on how to use the land based on the findings, and, if needed, work through the process with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). For example, TTL,Inc. suggested a green roof for the Music City Center and a number of other LEED Certified environmentally friendly elements. According to their website, LEED Certified buildings use less water and energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As an added bonus, they save money.

While the development of brownfields began downtown, it has spread to areas like Germantown. Most new developments are being built on reclaimed land, but some of the projects are reimagining old structures. This kind of remodel has another set of issues that need to be considered.

Similar to developing a brownfield, prior to any real estate transaction a Phase I ESA should be conducted,” says Green.  “Items that differ from property issues include asbestos and lead-based paint. Prior to any renovation or demolition of a structure, an air permit needs to be obtained either through the TDEC Division of Air Pollution Control or, if in Metro Nashville, a building permit.  To acquire an air permit, an asbestos inspection needs to be completed to identify how to properly handle materials.”

Once the brownfields and old structures were reclaimed, developers have been able to move forward with the plans the city detailed 20 years ago to create New Urban communities that have rich architecture, shops, entertainment, restaurants, and open spaces that are drawing a diversity of people to Nashville.

Areas once a blight on the city are now thriving spaces that residents would now find hard to imagine Nashville without.

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