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Breakthroughs: Successful Local Strategies for Affordable Housing

May 2008
Volume 7, Issue 3

Redeveloping Brownfields to Create Affordable Housing

Brownfield development in Astoria, Oregon.
A number of older neighborhoods and central cities have vacant or underused pockets of land that remain undeveloped due to environmental contamination. These sites, known as brownfields, can include abandoned gas stations, dry cleaners, industrial sites, and even golf courses. As land available for development grows increasingly scarce, utilizing brownfield sites to develop affordable housing is shaping up as an emerging trend. This article will discuss issues concerning housing development on brownfields and highlight state and local government efforts to overcome barriers to redevelopment.

Barriers to Building on a Brownfield

Developers may have to overcome regulatory challenges, such as stringent environmental guidelines for housing, high clean-up costs, community opposition, and lengthy approval processes, in order to develop affordable housing on brownfields. The following communities have successfully overcome these issues through the use of innovative solutions, such as tax credits, loan programs, fee waivers, flexible land use regulations, and community outreach programs.

West Palm Beach, Florida Developer Utilizes Tax Credits for Brownfield Clean-Up

The first step in brownfield redevelopment is to assess the level and type of contamination on a site in order to determine the extent of clean-up required, which varies depending on the type of contamination, the type of anticipated reuse, and state and local environmental standards. Redeveloping brownfield sites for housing purposes may require stricter clean-up standards, resulting in higher clean-up costs, and that can discourage developers.

The Malibu Bay Apartments in West Palm Beach, Florida stands on what was once a golf course that posed a ground water contamination hazard. The 264-unit complex for low- and moderate-income households was developed using sales tax rebates and voluntary clean-up tax credits (tax credits provided to taxpayers who voluntarily clean-up brownfield sites) provided by the state of Florida through its Brownfields Redevelopment Program. This program offers financial incentives for affordable housing, including a sales tax credit on building materials purchased for housing or mixed-use projects in designated brownfield zones, and a 75 percent voluntary clean-up tax credit, which can be applied towards Florida’s corporate income tax. The city of West Palm Beach also provided mortgage assistance and waived utility connection fees.

Bellingham, Massachusetts Rezones Brownfield Site for Mixed-Use Development

Existing zoning and land use regulations may not facilitate housing development on brownfields. Similarly, strict development standards and lower density requirements can reduce a project’s financial feasibility. The town of Bellingham, located 30 miles southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, rezoned an abandoned mill property to allow mixed-use development. The Pearl Street Mill (formerly known as Caryville Mill) was used for textile milling, light industry, and commercial operations until it was abandoned in 1999. The 22-acre site, zoned for industrial purposes, was contaminated with hazardous substances that included pesticides. In 2004, the town created a Mill Reuse Overlay District to facilitate redevelopment of abandoned mill buildings and to promote housing choices in Bellingham. The Overlay District allows multifamily and assisted elderly housing as permitted uses, requires at least five percent of all dwelling units to be affordable, waives front yard setback requirements, and allows reduced parking requirements under certain conditions.

Astoria, Oregon Facilitates Community Participation in Brownfield Redevelopment

The social stigma attached to environmental contamination on brownfield sites is more pronounced when it comes to housing-related projects. As such, opposition from community members can discourage residential development on brownfields. By involving community members in the redevelopment process from the onset, the city of Astoria, Oregon was able to alleviate some of the concerns and reduce opposition to the redevelopment of a brownfield site.

The Mill Pond Village site is located along the Columbia River near downtown Astoria, Oregon. A plywood mill operated on the site for more than 100 years before it was abandoned in 1989. The toxic chemicals left behind by mill operations led the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to declare the site a brownfield. The city took the initiative to redevelop the mill site and established a community planning process to gain public support for the redevelopment project, which faced opposition from community members who were hoping that the mill would return to operation. A citizen advisory committee appointed by the Mayor held numerous public meetings to receive input from the community. Combining the city’s goals and the community’s vision, the mill site was rezoned to enable mixed-use development that includes family daycare, multifamily dwellings, and live/work units. A 42-unit low- and moderate-income senior housing complex has been constructed as part of the redevelopment project, which also incorporates smart development principles.


Many brownfield sites are located in older neighborhoods with access to existing infrastructure. Developing housing on these infill sites can help revitalize entire neighborhoods and stimulate economic growth, in addition to meeting a community’s affordable housing needs. Successful brownfield redevelopment projects that result in affordable housing require innovative practices and active state and local government participation to overcome regulatory barriers.


Form-Based Zoning Codes Encourage Housing Development

Form-based code development in Hercules, California.  Photo by Jenn Klein/Chico Enterprise Record (reprinted with permission)
A growing number of communities looking for an alternative to traditional zoning codes are adopting Form-Based Codes (FBCs). Unlike conventional zoning codes, FBCs do not segregate land according to use, but instead regulate development by placing an emphasis on the building’s form and appearance in relation to the surrounding physical environment. By allowing flexibility within land uses and density regulations, FBCs can encourage the development of affordable housing. This article will focus on communities that have adopted FBCs to promote mixed-use developments to include a range of housing types.

What are Form-Based Codes?

Form-based codes focus on the visual aspects of development, such as building types, heights, facades, setbacks, and location of parking. Key components of a form-based code include a regulating plan, building standards, architectural, and street design standards. The regulating plan defines the building types and standards allowed for specific areas through illustrations. Adopting a form-based code involves broad public participation achieved through community forums and design charrettes.

FBCs provide increased flexibility and promote infill development and mixed-uses. For example, with traditional zoning, a developer would not be able to build housing units on an infill lot in a commercially zoned area. By de-emphasizing use regulation, a form-based code would allow a mix of uses, including housing, as long as the building envelope and other street and architectural standards are met. FBCs are also concise, can be easier to understand, and allow for streamlined review processes. They can be adopted for entire communities, or for specific areas or projects.

Columbia Pike Special Revitalization District, Arlington, Virginia

In 2003, Arlington County, Virginia adopted the Columbia Pike Special Revitalization District Form Based Code as an addition to the county’s zoning ordinance. The optional FBC applies to a 3.5 mile stretch of land along the Columbia Pike corridor and overlays the existing zoning for the area. Under the code, projects with building footprints of less than 30,000 square feet are allowed by right. Proposals allowed by right are reviewed within 30 days. Historic buildings and sites that are less than 20,000 square feet in area face no minimum parking requirements, and there are no maximum limits on shared parking.

Subsequent to the adoption of the code, approximately 991 residential units have been approved as part of mixed-use developments, including retail and other commercial spaces along the corridor. A proposal to replace an existing 5,000 square foot community center with a 40,000 square foot complex (including 203 apartment units) is nearing approval. Sixty-one of these apartments will be reserved for affordable housing.

Station Area Code, Farmers Branch, Texas

Farmer’s Branch, Texas adopted the Station Area Plan in anticipation of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) extension of light rail service to the area. Existing city codes were found to be inadequate in realizing the goals of the Station Area Plan. Following an 18-month public visioning and education campaign, the city adopted the Station Area Code for approximately 144 acres surrounding the proposed DART light rail station. The code is mandatory for all new development in the area and includes four street types with different building standards. The code features an expedited review process and allows for reduced parking requirements. The city is currently negotiating with developers to construct several mixed-use projects that include housing as a major component.

Central Hercules Plan Regulating Code, Hercules, California

Single-family homes developed in Hercules, California. Photo by Jenn Klein/Chico Enterprise Record (reprinted with permission)

The city of Hercules, California is located 22 miles northeast of San Francisco. The city adopted its regulating code in 2001 to cover 400 acres that formerly housed California Powder Works – a dynamite plant. The code establishes standards for eight street types, and defines architectural standards for various building types. Shared parking is encouraged and on-street parking is permitted in all districts. There are no minimum side or rear yard setbacks and accessory dwelling units are allowed by right. The code supports streamlined approval and has helped trigger numerous mixed-use and residential projects, including live/work units. The increase in supply of housing units has helped the city meet its affordable housing requirements as established by the state of California. According to the city’s community development director, a 105-unit affordable housing project is currently under construction.


Form-based codes are gaining acceptance across the nation as a development tool to help realize a community’s vision of its built environment. By promoting high-density mixed-use development and shifting the focus from use to design regulation, form-based codes can encourage residential development and help communities meet their affordable housing needs through increased supply.


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