Nebraska and Iowa agencies working to redevelop vacant lots with possible environmental concerns

They’re called “brownfields.”
Agencies in both Nebraska and Iowa are pushing to redevelop parts of the metro known as "brownfields."
Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 6:47 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Eugene Radziunas used to go to St. Anthony’s Church in South Omaha as a schoolboy in the late 1960s.

“Well, it was sad. It is sad,” he said at the thought of what it looks like today. “I mean the closing to the building itself and the church we understand. But the building, it’s just gotten worse every year.”

Brian Johnson lives right across the rundown, vacant properties off South 32nd Street. He said it’s been more than an eyesore for years.

“The kids were using this as a playhouse, and I kept running them out,” said Johnson. “The police were here all the time taking them to their parents. It’s finally stopped because there’s nothing but poisoned air in there.”

Taryn Horn with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy confirmed some of the resident’s concerns.

“This is not salvageable. The roof caved in. Our contractors said this building isn’t salvageable, so they didn’t even complete a full mold assessment,” said Horn. She said there’s lead paint and asbestos too.

A group of agencies is pushing to promote the development of so-called "brownfields" around Omaha.

The old St. Anthony’s church and schoolhouse is just one example of a brownfield. Brownfields are areas that are contaminated or places people believe may be contaminated, like old gas stations, dry cleaners, and metal manufacturing sites. Those environmental concerns may stop development from happening.

“There’s a lot of abandoned and dilapidated properties throughout the region that we think are potentially brownfield sites. So we want to provide people the opportunity to learn about the technical and financial system available to put them back on the rolls and redevelop the properties,” said Julie Smith with the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency.

Through funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies conduct free environmental assessments for public entities or nonprofits.

If a plot of land is owned privately, the city or a nonprofit can apply for that free assessment with the permission of the owner. These assessments themselves are a few thousand dollars.

A map by the EPA shows an inventory of brownfields across America.

“In Omaha, in particular, I would say they’re probably going to be east of 72nd because it’s more historic and the nature of development happened earliest on the east side,” said Smith. “One of the reasons the EPA funds this program so well is we want underutilized properties to have a function and utility for communities.”

That includes bringing in tax dollars and raising property values. According to the EPA, a redeveloped brownfield raises property values by five to 15 percent.

While the plans for this brownfield aren’t set, Canopy South the nonprofit that owns it is working to redevelop it. As for what longtime resident Eugene Radziunas would like to see something green.

“Neighborhood gardens are popular right now. And something like that might actually bring people together in this neighborhood,” he said.

The agencies involved with the Brownfields program are holding an in-depth workshop on March 30.