Polluted and Dangerous:
America’s Worst Abandoned Properties and What can be Done About Them

By Justin Hollander


Built around 1943 to support the War effort, the Delco Appliance Factory is located between Orchard and Whitney Avenue in the Dutchtown neighborhood of Rochester (Marcotte 2004). While only one of thousands of similar manufacturing sites across the U.S., the Delco Factory stands as a useful point of beginning to introduce this book’s goals, approach and significance.

As the forces of globalization closed in on the automotive industry, the Delco Factory closed its doors and emptied the heroic building around 1995. From 1950 to 2000, Rochester lost nearly 1/3 of its population, going from a city of 322,000 to a city of just 220,000. Arson, crime, and dumping plague not just the Delco Factory, but the impacts spill over into the Dutchtown neighborhood. Rochester’ planning director estimated that properties more than ¼ mile away from the Delco Factory experience depressed property values due to the site. In a blighting fashion, the site spreads its impacts far beyond its immediate environs. Beyond the dangers of crime and abandonment, concerns about what and when some kind of new use will materialize at the site acts as a chilling effect on further investment.

Just over a mile away, city officials go about the ugly business of managing a declining American city. Ever optimistic, city leaders advance sustainability, economic development, education, and public safety agendas to revive their despondent hometown (Duffy 2006). The city boasts on its website about successful redevelopment projects, but what about the really serious sites like the Delco Factory that are literally dragging down their neighborhoods? What does the Delco Factory mean to the sustainability of Rochester? Do local officials think that these kinds of sites represent a real problem? If so, what do they do to address them and how successful are they? With environmental risks high and redevelopment costs higher, what can the City do?

Taking a national perspective, I ask about how cities across the U.S. address sites like the Delco Plant - what others have called HI-TOADS (High-Impact Temporarily Obsolete Abandoned Derelict Sites) (Greenberg et al. 2000). Fit within the larger context of sustainable communities, this book explores the how a city achieves sustainability while confronting decline. In the introductory chapter, I lay out the theoretical and empirical literature in this area, including a critical review of key scholarship in sustainability, urban planning, brownfields redevelopment, and environmental justice. In the second chapter, I describe, generally, what local officials think about these HI-TOADS based on interview research I conducted of twenty cities across the U.S from 2005-2006. In the next five chapters, I present detailed case studies of five cities and their efforts to address HI-TOADS during the same time period. Through each intimate portrait, I reveal the underlying nature of each city’s urban redevelopment practices and present the implications for urban, environmental, and planning theory. In the final chapter, I synthesize the case studies and tie the findings to the original goals of the book.

This book contributes to a larger policy debate at the local, state, and federal level about how abandoned sites are part of the continual efforts to shape a sustainable community. This book illustrates the value for local officials in prioritizing the “high-hanging” fruit, the sites with the greatest neighborhood-wide impacts in order to achieve sustainability. Current federal and many state policies encourage local governments to make the easy deal, rather than challenging them to take on their most undesirable brownfields. This book lends support for a comparable ranking and listing system for brownfields with the greatest blight and property value impacts on their neighborhoods and concomitant prioritization for funding. By linking the neighborhood impacts of a site to wider city and regional sustainability goals, communities can better position themselves for the changes associated with landscape obsolescence and urban decline.

The book is also significant for practicing land developers and planners. The book’s thorough evaluation and exploration into the policies cities employ when faced with cities’ most severe brownfields is of great value to support the work of practitioners.