Cleveland's $100-Million Plan to Turn Brownfields Into Development-Ready Land

Bibb vows to make "thousands of acres" of unused land ready for business

click to enlarge Bibb speaking at the State of the City address - Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea
Bibb speaking at the State of the City address
The mere sight of them brings on cringes. They can be eyesores of five, six stories, gigantic masses of hollowed-out windows, muddied lots and unkempt overgrowth. And they have long since ceased being useful and in fact now do the opposite.

Clevelanders have long wanted the ugly, abandoned, dilapidated sites dotting town to be torn down, remediated. And new businesses and developments to sprought on the sites.

So does the city, and it might finally have the funding to do something about it.

On April 11th, the Bibb administration announced plans to spend $50 million of the city's nearly half billion in American Rescue Plan Act allocation on a Site Readiness Fund, money which would be used directly to knock down vacant eyesores, link up water lines and clean up years and years of pollutant build-up. And matching funds from other sources could double that number.

"So the intent is actually for the city to put in $50 million and then for us to get an additional $50 million in funding between the county and various state sources and potentially philanthropic sources to have $100 million fund, "Jeff Epstein, Bibb's chief of integrated development, told Scene.

Underneath the "thousands of acres" of brownfields—the state term that comes from the rust-hued color that defines these unused sites—often lie oils, gas and PCBs that've sat dormant before the former iron foundry or industrial dry cleaning site was abandoned. According to the most recent Ohio Brownfield Inventory Report, there are at least 25 of these sites scattered throughout Cleveland.

Because the city owns an estimated one-fourth of Cleveland's land, it could be, with the normal assistance of millions of state and county dollars, in a prime position to nudge the city closer into its shiny, new post-industrial image.

"We have a lot of land that is not in active use in the city," Epstein said. "But we're not seeing private developers do this because there's not enough of a financial return. And so that's why we're stepping in to do this."

Brownfields, according to state estimates, cost on average of $15,000 to $35,000 per acre to clean up. Moreover, like Great Lakes did in Scranton Peninsula or MRN did with the Voss Building, pricey phase-one studies analyzing groundwater or soil purity are necessary beforehand, and often take years.

The deterrents are, therefore, pretty obvious. A ten-acre brownfield could cost a developer hungry to build off East 55th or on Scranton $2 to $3 million before any building can be done. It's, as developer J. Shorey told Scene, "a total sunk cost."

Nicholas House, a real estate attorney who guides prospective companies to sites, said he's witnessed these exact developers walk away from sites all due to a lack of public funds.

"We have had clients go to that Phase Two and then start to sharpen their pencils on their construction budget, taking into account all the remediation work that needs to be done and all the additional site protections," House said in a phone call. "And suddenly the development, the transaction doesn't pencil out anymore. The costs exceed the ultimate value for the development."

As Mayor Bibb suggested in his State of the City speech last month, given days after the Site Readiness was announced, a pool of $100 million could, one day, reverse the downward trend of jobs leaving Cleveland over the past two decades.

While the country as a whole has seen an 11 percent growth in the trades in the past 15 years, Cleveland's, on the other hand, has plummeted by five percent. Also, according to the city, in the same time period, nearly 25 percent of all jobs disappeared.

"The biggest challenge is that we don't have enough development sites primed and ready to go," Bibb said in his speech.

Epstein couldn't say exactly how many of those ugly brownfields, and other vacant lots, could see brand new business parks popping up on them, or apartment complexes. Not all brownfields are owned by the city, which could limit the span of the ARPA dollar reach.

Though it may not look like it to the casual observer, biking through the industrial wasteland minutes east of Tremont's condos, sites are being gradually changed with brownfield remediation.

In Ohio City, MRN's cleaning up the old Voss Industries building with $724,838 from Ohio's fund and $137,719 from the county. Bridgeworks, the star mid-rise going up at West 25th and Detroit Ave. got $42,465 from the county and $223,500 from the state. As both Epstein and House suggest, the city's own ARPA boost could mean more projects, at a bigger scale—and fewer eyesores to balk at.

It's sort of what happened in 2021, in Delaware, where Andrew Harton, business finance director Delaware Division of Small Business, has helped monitor the state's Site Readiness Fund, which sees $10 million per year.

Following 2021's pilot, Harton watched as, over a two-year span, 116 projects were boosted with site-readiness money, money Harton told Scene was key in bringing those business parks and light-industrial entrepreneurs to Wilmington or outside Middletown. And like Cleveland's, Delaware's fund is a one-to-one match, which essentially doubles the opportunity to make use of vacant sites.

And, well, it's also making the state some extra cash.

"For us, every dollar that we invest in this program has received about $40 worth of private investment," Harton said.

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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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