Beyond the Build

Construction Trends

Downtown Cousins: Brownfields, Urban Redevelopment and Adaptive Reuse

Growing up, I often visited South Georgia, where my father told me what it was like in the early days of a cotton farmer. As I recall, they would plant the same crop annually, repeating year after year. There were lots of reasons for this of course–I am certainly not chucking spears at the farmers–but as a result, the land would get worn out and robbed of its nutrients. The farmers would move to a new plot, then same song new verse. They eventually ran out of land and had to reuse, adapt and recycle.

This cycle seems parallel to what we are doing today. In some cases, space constraints require redevelopment, and in others there is a significance to the site, making it worth saving. While there will always be greenfield developments in our work, we are also seeing more urban redevelopment and more residential living, elbow to elbow. I believe this trend will continue.

Right now, we are involved in three projects of this kind:

  1. What I call a “super brownfield site,” an old industrial site close to the Tennessee River in Knoxville.
  2. An adaptive reuse of a commercial project in the central business district of NOLA.
  3. The remake of a 100-year-old theater and opera house.

While all of these are not brownfield, to me all of these types of projects are distant cousins. There are bits and pieces to be saved or salvaged and new construction to varying degrees, depending upon the circumstances. As a contractor, these projects can be fun in many ways. They are certainly stimulating; Maybe too stimulating at times. Here’s what we’ve learned as we progress:

  •  Hire the best consultants you can find. Plan and then do more planning. There is no substitute for looking out for all of the entitlement landmines. Detailed surveys like GPR are vital, and more information is always better. On a recent project, we knew the site was active during the Civil War. We involved the State Historical Preservation Organization (SHPO) for a pre-construction investigation to ensure no artifacts would be disturbed, acquiring their old site maps in the process.
  • Communicate early and regularly with local jurisdictions. Because of the many parties involved, there is often a laundry list of code requirements to follow and permits to be obtained. On this same project, our civil superintendent maintains and updates a two-page tally of ever-evolving permits. Lines should be open and well-greased between the design team, consultants, and construction team and the local authorities.
  • Plan ahead for possible impact on productivity. Even with our pre-planning on the Tennessee River project, we ran into a slow down. About two thirds of the way through the SHPO investigation, it was discovered that the land was also tied to a Federal treaty with Native American tribes. This requirement then triggered a tribal review of the archaeological survey.

Are you involved in any “downtown cousin” type projects? Any lessons learned?

(Image Credit: mattnager.photoshelter.com)

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.