With thousands of commercial buildings in foreclosure and many others in disrepair, cities around the country are looking for ways to rescue the properties and eliminate community blight. A program called "Red Fields to Green Fields" proposes acquiring abandoned and underutilized properties, demolishing or repositioning them, and replacing them with conservation land, parks, infrastructure improvements or other green space, which will attract economic development when the economy recovers.
"Red field properties have negative value civically, environmentally and economically. Converting this underused commercial real estate to green space now and land that could be built on again when the economy improves would be transformational," said Kevin Caravati, a senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). "The conversion would create demolition and landscaping jobs and stabilize housing and property values around the distressed properties."
With support from the Speedwell Foundation, the Georgia Institute of Technology has helped 11 U.S. cities assess the supply of distressed commercial real estate in their communities and determine the best approaches for turning some of that property into green space. Last week, representatives from Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Hilton Head Island revealed their cities' Red Fields to Green Fields study results in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Capitol. Altogether, the five cities' plans would create as many as 20,000 acres of new parkland and an estimated 300,000 new jobs.
Representatives from the National Park Service, the Trust for Public Land, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center and U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady's office also attended the meeting. The Pennsylvania congressman is introducing legislation on red fields to green fields issues.
In his remarks at the meeting, Mickey Fearn, deputy director of communications and community assistance for the National Park Service, stated that Red Fields to Green Fields could be America's best idea. Since the financial crisis began in 2008, real estate values have declined approximately $10 trillion. Today, city residents are surrounded by vacant strip malls, blighted commercial corridors, abandoned housing developments and an oversupply of retail and industrial space.
For the Red Fields to Green Fields project, each city asked the same question: What if we invest a few billion dollars in our city to convert red fields to green fields?
To answer the question, Georgia Tech researchers helped each city utilize financial models used by the U.S. Department of the Interior and data reported by the Federal Reserve to quantify the economic, health, social, policy and engineering impacts of turning red fields into green fields. They also incorporated data from city master plans, green space plans, transportation reports, urban infrastructure redevelopment programs and geographic information system databases. The reports were written in collaboration with the City Parks Alliance and 14 universities, local government agencies and stakeholders.
While each city had a different story, the answer was always the same. Thousands of acres of underutilized residential and commercial real estate assets could be rescued and restored through public park planning to enhance the city's economic, environmental and physical health. Cities could replace concrete and glass with trees, green space and cleaner air; remove abandoned buildings that attract crime and vagrancy; and create space for recreation, play and exercise to combat obesity and poor health.
"This type of conversion would spur business activity, create jobs and address the real estate problem at its source -- oversupply," said Michael Messner of the Speedwell Foundation. "And its economic effect would be multiplied with increased infrastructure spending, leverage from unlocking banks’ reserves, and real estate owners would spend again knowing their real estate values have stabilized."
The City of Los Angeles report proposed more than 200 projects to revitalize areas surrounding 32 miles of the Los Angeles River. These projects would create walkable and bikeable connections to the river and link users to small businesses and job sites.
Nearly 3,000 acres of non-performing real estate could be removed from the Phoenix market through red fields to green fields investments, according to that city's report, creating almost 50,000 jobs and an economic impact of $5.9 billion.
"Red fields to green fields projects can restore liquidity to the real estate markets and put Arizona back to work," added Joseph Goodman, a graduate student in the Georgia Tech College of Architecture.
In Detroit, an industrial land inventory indicated that more than 11,000 acres of distressed real estate could be used to create corridors linking job site locations with housing and transportation.
Acquiring land adjacent to 10 major bayous in Houston and establishing an interconnected system of parks, trails and economic development corridors could create 55,000 jobs over the next 10 years. Hilton Head Island served as a case study to evaluate the economic and job impacts to coastal communities.
'Often thought of as resort areas, coastal towns serve as hubs for commercial real estate development, recreation and jobs. We found that red fields to green fields projects in Hilton Head Island and other coastal communities can revitalize these communities and establish conservation lands," said GTRI research scientist Matthew Wren.
The five new city reports add to reports published last year for six other cities -- Atlanta, Denver, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami and Wilmington.
Since publishing its report, the city of Denver, in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land and private donors, started acquiring red field sites along the South Platte River Corridor. It is estimated that these investments and implementation of a robust red fields to green fields program in Denver could add more than 30,000 new jobs to the region and remove more than 6,000 acres of distressed real estate from the market, creating an almost $4 billion impact.
During the past year, Miami also began to execute its Red Fields to Green Fields proposal, which tied into its city master plan, and is working to acquire land through public-private partnerships. Miami's report stated that the tax base could be increased by an estimated $59 million per year by converting 312 acres of non-performing real estate to transit-oriented development and more than 14,000 jobs per year for five years could be created. In addition, linking Everglades National Park and Biscayne Bay National Park could create 1,625 acres of additional parkland.
Other U.S. cities have already embraced the concept of converting distressed real estate to improve a region's infrastructure and encourage economic development. Boston's "Big Dig" was a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project that transformed the city. Local, smaller scale examples in Atlanta include Atlantic Station, the Piedmont Park expansion and the Beltline Old Fourth Ward project.
During the next year, the Georgia Tech research team will focus its efforts on helping the 11 cities implement the plans in their Red Fields to Green Fields reports.
Other researchers involved in the Red Fields to Green Fields program include Joseph Hughes, chair of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech; Carolyn Knabel, a graduate student in the Georgia Tech College of Architecture; Cade Strippelhoff, a graduate student in the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy; and Erin Keller, an undergraduate student in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.