Sunday, February 22, 2009

Old MIlls in Flood Zones

Old mills are scattered throughout Connecticut's low lying places. These old industrial and manufacturing buildings typically have sought after architectural features. They have high ceilings, wooden floors, ornate brick exteriors, and big windows. They’re in hot places too. They were the hubs around which villages and cities grew and they’re central sites still. From them, residents and workers can walk to schools, shops, libraries and restaurants. Bringing back our older industrial sites is critical to compact, walkable, smart development in the state.

Recapturing these buildings for lofts, galleries, and offices isn’t cheap even when the economy is rolling. And with seized-up capital markets, it’s even more difficult now. They can be dirty sites with contaminated soils, lead, asbestos, etc. They’re often historic and subject to high restoration standards. They may be speculative -- lynch pin developments for revitalizing down-on-their-luck parts of town. Not surprisingly, developers tend to seek state assistance in the form of tax credits, grants, or loans to bring them back. In Connecticut, state assistance to development projects must meet environmental standards. One such standard prohibits state involvement in projects within the the flood plain.

Our old mills were built to capitalize on ready access to hydroelectric power. They’re on or very near rivers. They are frequently within the flood plain. Developers have been advocating increasingly strenuously for that requirement to be changed. Some want the prohibition eliminated altogether. Some want it eliminated for residential development. Some want the protected zone reduced from the 500-year flood plain to the 100-year flood plain. Developers know these properties hold strong redevelopment potential but let's face it, their time horizon for interest in a property is necessarily shorter than that of the state. Developers secure a property, give it a new future, turn it over to a new owner, and move on. This is their role, and it's a good one. The state's interest in the properties are longer, they last through loan repayments and through the lives of current and future residents of the buildings and thier downstream neighbors.

Climate change science has taught us Connecticut’s weather is morphing. Sea levels are rising. Storms patterns are intensifying. Our miles of impervious surface mean that when snow melts or when it rains, less water seeps into the soil, instead it charges for our rivers and streams and increases the likelihood and severity of floods. These patterns are real and irrefutable and we have to mitigate for them.

In addition, in the case of mixed-income developments, affordable units are often built on the lower stories while the scenic views found in upper stories contribute to the value of prime units. This means that subsidized units and their low-income residents are more likely to be in flood-prone levels.

So, how do we meet our smart growth goals to reuse existing buildings and re-enliven existing villages, developers' call for regulations that allow the buildings to be reused, and our need to invest state dollars in development that is sustainable, protect the long-term economic viability of these buildings, and ensure the security of new units, including affordable housing units?

This legislative session, a bill was introduced in the Commerce Committee that leads to a reasonable compromise. In short, the bill would exempt older industrial sites from the flood plain prohibition on the condition that the footprint of the renovated buildings do not exceed the footprint of existing buildings and any residential units are above the 500-year flood plain.

Does this provide the right balance? Share your comments.

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