Smart Growth

April 11, 2007

About the author: This article was adapted from sections of the Environmental Protection Agency’s report, Using Smart Growth Techniques as Stormwater Best Management Practices, EPA 231-B-05-002. For more information, contact Jennifer Molloy at 202/564-1939 or by e-mail at [email protected].


Communities around the country are adopting smart growth strategies to reach environmental, community and economic goals. Environmental goals include water benefits that accrue when development strategies use compact development forms, a mix of uses, better use of existing infrastructure and preservation of critical environmental areas.

Regulations under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) storm water program offer a structure for considering the water quality benefits associated with smart growth techniques. Compliance with federal, state and local storm water programs revolves around the use of best management practices (BMPs) to manage storm water. Given the water benefits of smart growth at the site, neighborhood and watershed levels, many smart growth techniques and policies are emerging as BMPs.

One such technique is redevelopment. The NPDES storm water requirements—in particular the Post-Construction Minimum Measure—have focused attention on how development projects, both individually and collectively, impact a watershed after projects are built. Although this article is geared toward the post-construction measure under Phase II, any city or county renewing a permit under Phase I can use them. Additionally, cities, counties and townships that are not regulated, but are proactively developing storm water, flooding or watershed plans, can utilize smart growth techniques such as redevelopment to meet water quality goals.


Redevelopment is development of a site that has been previously developed and is typically covered with an impervious or compacted surface. For purposes of this article, the reader can assume that the lot is covered with a compacted or impervious surface and has minimal to no value in handling storm water. These projects can include development of vacant buildings, lots where a building has been torn down and replaced with gravel parking lots or older malls.

In most instances, redevelopment is left to market forces. Developers and real estate investors seek out available property and either redevelop by right or petition for a variance or rezoning. In other jurisdictions, special entities are formed to foster redevelopment. There are often barriers, including complex approval processes and the perception from lenders that the deal will pose more risk than new development projects.

Thus the best resources for learning about redevelopment plans can be private-sector organizations or public/private partnerships. Economic entities, such as redevelopment authorities, “Main Street” programs and brownfields offices, often work to line up financing, zoning reforms, shared parking arrangements and other incentives to overcome the barriers and perceptions that suppress market interest. An economic development director, chamber of commerce or city manager would know if there are established redevelopment districts that can be added to storm water management plans. Ahead of a redevelopment agency can talk to local land development experts to develop scenarios of watershed growth. This way not only the economic benefits of redevelopment, but also the regional water benefits can be presented. Commercial real estate brokers also are a good resource for information on why a commercial district, mall or older downtown is underperforming, and what steps are likely to revive interest.

Vacant property reform, greyfields and renovation codes are examples of programs useful to redevelopment projects.

Vacant property reform. According to the National Vacant Properties Campaign, vacant and abandoned properties occupy about 15% of the area of a typical large city—more than 12,000 acres on average. Vacant property reforms are designed to encourage the redevelopment of vacant properties, allowing the utilization of existing buildings in potentially desirable urban and suburban locations. For more information, visit The International City/County Managers Association has researched and reported on successful local efforts to bring vacant commercial and residential properties back into use. For more information, visit

Greyfields. Greyfields, a subcategory of vacant or underperforming properties, are large, previously developed properties, such as older shopping malls and warehouses. These sites tend to be large and well served by transportation and storm water infrastructure. These properties differ from brownfields in that they are not contaminated or perceived to be contaminated.

To see if a community is working on a redevelopment strategy for old malls or other greyfield sites, contact the department of economic development or the local chamber of commerce. This strategy may include mixed-use rezoning, enhanced transportation on the site and/or redevelopment incentives. Because these sites are so large and are not contaminated, better control of storm water on site may be negotiable, which will increase the storm water benefits of the redevelopment project. The Congress for New Urbanism published Greyfields into Goldfields, which presents information on common reasons behind the decline in malls and large properties and development options for reusing the sites. For more information, visit

Renovation Codes. Renovation, or rehabilitation, codes are commonly developed to replace inflexible building codes with a set of coordinated standards for renovation and rehabilitation in older areas. For example, renovation of an old downtown might be prohibitively expensive, or impossible, under building codes created for new development. Renovation codes meet safety objectives while setting workable standards for renovation. Renovation codes also help towns revitalize the economies of their downtowns while relieving development pressure on greenfield sites (and thus retaining the storm water benefits of open space).

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published a report, Smart Codes in Your Community: A Guide to Building Rehabilitation Codes, describing various redevelopment codes and examples of rehabilitation codes from across the country. For more information, visit If a community or state offers support for renovation and rehabilitation, also check to see if historic tax credits are allowed, and count this toward storm water credit for redevelopment. Historic preservation offices and local nonprofits that deal with historic preservation are good resources for this type of information.

Typical costs

The costs of redevelopment are distributed among several stakeholders. For a city or county, fostering redevelopment can include: 1) the costs of redevelopment planning and stakeholder outreach; 2) the costs of any incentives provided; 3) upgrading and repairing of existing street and water infrastructure; and 4) staff time if specific programs have been established. These costs, however, cannot be appraised without looking at the costs associated with vacant or underused commercial and residential properties. The Vacant Properties Campaign has compiled information on these costs that is available on its website.

For developers, redevelopment projects in already-developed areas are typically more complex, and thus can be more expensive. These developers must work with existing street and circulation patterns, building configurations, and zoning and regulatory codes, many of which are decades or even centuries old. Developers look at the time and cost involved to see if projects “pencil out” economically. Local incentives and regulations play into cost, including storm water management. Smart growth plans and state programs may offer funding mechanisms, open space and park funds, tax incentives or permit review incentives. When packaged strategically, these incentives may serve not only as economic development incentives, but storm water program incentives as well.

Measurable goals

Because redevelopment projects are discrete and are typically tracked through permits, storm water managers may be able to use databases that are already in use. Because many storm water consultants are establishing tracking software, they can help establish new fields to track the impervious surface reused through redevelopment. One example of a measurable goal would be to create an inventory of vacant properties and set goals for redeveloping them.

The amount of impervious surface avoided through redevelopment programs also may be trackable. This approach would translate how the square footage, building footprint, parking and associated infrastructure would compare under conventional development standards elsewhere in the watershed. As a first step, the storm water or planning office would need to estimate: 1) where the development might go were it not for redevelopment programs; 2) the average parameters for conventional development (e.g., likely number of parking spaces, new roads and access designs); and 3) any other secondary impacts that might come from new growth.

Case in point

A comparison of build-out scenarios was used to assess the transportation and water and air quality impacts of Atlantic Station, a brownfields redevelopment project in Atlanta. The site design for Atlantic Station, located on a former steel factory, includes several storm water improvements. The developer, Jacoby Development, Inc., built storm water handling features on the site, upgraded the storm and sanitary sewer network for the project and addressed groundwater contamination.

As part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s analysis, the agency compared how the same intensity of development would perform if built according to conventional development standards in other parts of the Atlantic metropolitan region farther from the urban core. Compared with a greenfields site, the redevelopment scenario had lower total phosphorous and nitrogen loadings as well as reduced volume. In some cases, the comparative reductions were orders of magnitude lower.