Kalamazoo, Michigan is recognized for a number of historical manufacturing legends such as Shakespeare fishing equipment, Gibson guitars, and Checker Cabs. But the glory days of these and other companies have come and gone. Now Kalamazoo is fast becoming a legend in its own right through its dedication to saving the many worn out properties left vacant when businesses closed down.

Kalamazoo is determined to recover these properties – now known as "brownfields" -- and to redevelop them to their highest and best yield. City leaders as well as citizens know the time has come to reclaim and rejuvenate their city and their tax base. And from their experiences, thousands of such municipalities stand to gain a great deal.

In the late 1980s, Kalamazoo began its first brownfield effort in the heart of its downtown district. Facing a rundown shopping district, a frequent flooding and a growing crime problem, interested parties began to look for ways to salvage and rejuvenate the downtown district. As the first city in the United States to construct an outdoor pedestrian mall, they were especially anxious to regain the lost revenues and commercial growth of earlier decades. Kalamazoo City Planning and Development Coordinator Steve Deisler recalls the beginnings.

"Mainly, the ‘blighted’ condition of the north mall and the fact that flooding was a problem led to less and less economic development. That blight was the perception of developers, and that perception was hampering any development."

A Whole New Look
The project, now known as the Arcadia Creek Corridor, began with the release of Arcadia Creek from an underground channel where it had been buried for more than a century. The new Arcadia Creek runs the length of the downtown commercial district, ending in a landscaped pond. Not only does the pond serve to contain a 500-year flood, it is enjoyed by visitors and locals during hot summer nights, weekend festivals and work-day lunch hours.

Around Arcadia Creek spreads 13 blocks of prime downtown real estate, much of which was unused or under utilized thanks to decades of contamination and disuse. These properties were tested and remediated rendering them safe from a variety of contaminants, and desirable for redevelopment. Eventual demolition of numerous unsalvageable buildings and rejuvenation of others with historical significance was also undertaken, clearing the way for new commerce and the rebirth of the city.

In addition, new buildings were designed and built which enhanced the historic architecture of the area while serving the needs of new commercial residents. Kalamazoo Valley Community College, West Michigan Cancer Center, and First of America Bank Corporation are three primary new residents. A new 600-space parking garage also was built providing not only needed parking, but an innovative and practical concrete cap safely covering and containing the contaminated property.

What began with $18 million in public sector funding has leveraged more than $200 million in private development. State equalized values increased as well, going from an annual $60,000 to $400,000. In addition, festival activities are estimated to add nearly $12 million to the local economy each year.

Onward and Upward
After a successful project of such magnitude, many city officials might be tempted to rest on their laurels. Such is not the case in Kalamazoo. Project Coordinator Deisler explains. "The key (to redevelopment) is to keep the momentum going. You can’t sit back. You have to move forward."

And that is just what they did. In 1996, Kalamazoo applied for and was awarded $100,000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as one of the country’s first Brownfield Economic Redevelopment Initiative Pilot Programs. In 1997, the EPA extended the grant and issued another $100,000. One of just 76 such recipients nationwide, the Kalamazoo Pilot program was undertaken with the same high level of community involvement that made Arcadia such a resounding success. Using a model implementation plan and the combined resources of city, state and private sector, the project has developed end-use options, conducted assessments, prepared analyses, and ultimately identified financial and human resources for the final redevelopment of six high-priority brownfield sites throughout the city.

More importantly, says Deisler, the overall redevelopment process emphasizes sustainability " As we redevelop we aren’t just looking at building now, but at the overall plan for the city – a more comprehensive plan. By using redevelopment and reuse with design we hope to spur further development. We want it all to fit together in the end."

To get a firm feel for what the possibilities are for these high-profile sites, Deisler appealed to EPA to allow the city to use leftover grant funds for an innovative new idea -- a professional brownfields market analysis. The analysis would create a strategy for development based on critical market indicators including demographics, market trends, land-use options, environmental conditions, constructability studies, investment requirements and incentives, and expected returns. (See sidebar.)

With the blessing of EPA, the City and STS Consultants Ltd. moved ahead with the market analysis, which was completed in early October. Although not a defined process during the Arcadia Creek Project, the concept of brownfield market analysis evolved over time. Ken Nacci, Director of the Kalamazoo Downtown Develop Authority during the Arcadia Creek project, now Director of Planning and Development with STS Consultants Ltd., developed the STS Brownfield Maximization Strategy based on his years of experience. As one of the core developers of the Arcadia Creek project, Nacci knows that defining both the limitations and the possibilities for any piece of property is essential.

"In my experience, the success of a brownfield redevelopment hinges upon balancing economic return with community need. The limitations of the site and the possibilities for end use must be compatible with adjacent businesses and nearby residents. If a particular end use is not suitable for all parties concerned, other alternatives should be examined until the perfect match is found."

Deisler agrees. First and foremost, he says, the market analysis is helping the City save time by narrowing options and allowing the different parties involved to concentrate on the possibilities. "Right now we are using the market analysis report as a tool to generate feedback from our stakeholders which include the city, redevelopment organizations and the community at large. It is helpful in that it provides the detailed information for marketing and construction aspects. It has saved us time and given us direction."

As the redevelopment progresses, Deisler and other stakeholders can use the market analysis information to ensure sound decision making in a number of areas. For example, where environmental justice is an issue certain types of commercial or industrial development will enhance adjacent neighborhoods, rather than hinder. This is a primary concern according to Deisler who says, "We are not only trying to put industry in, we are trying to make it a benefit to the neighbors. For example, right now we are working on creating training programs to compliment the site uses."

To date, the Kalamazoo Brownfield Pilot has begun redeveloping two of the six sites. These are being used by local companies and are "a good fit," says Dielser. The next four will require more outreach to expand the range of proposals. However, Deisler is confident that the past decade of experience and the newly-incorporated market analysis will pay off. Moreover he adds, the high level of community involvement is a big plus.

"Community involvement is a major priority to EPA and Kalamazoo is a very involved community. We have several groups involved such as the Coalition for Urban Redevelopment -- a county-wide non-profit organization comprised of corporate and citizen volunteers. The most challenging aspect has been decisions on best use of the site. We use everyone’s input. No one is excluded."

Deisler also feels the future holds great potential. By learning from the past and creating new and innovative techniques, Kalamazoo may someday have a new claim to fame as the nation’s "Brownfield Redevelopment Capital." As Deisler see it, "Arcadia Creek was private sector driven and this Pilot Project is public sector driven. We have learned a lot and we want to continue to expand redevelopment into the private sector sites. There are plenty of opportunities for success."