FROM HIS TOWER OFFICE IN the Atlanta Financial Center, Gerald Pouncey can see potential in every abandoned building and former industrial site through the Atlanta haze. As an attorney with Morris, Manning & Martin's Atlanta office, he has become a well-known figure in the battle to turn sites that had been written off into viable projects—even communities. He notes that his firm's “failure rate” with regard to making brownfield projects happen is about 5 percent. “Others are about 30 percent to 40 percent,” he says.

The key tenet of Pouncey's approach: convincing regulators, especially state agencies, that former industrial sites don't have to be made 100 percent chemical-free to be suitable for new construction.

“You can get rid of the first 90 percent of contamination relatively easily and keep a project feasible,” he says. “It's the last 10 percent that can be the death knell for multimillion-dollar projects. It's just far more costly to remove those last molecules.”

Clean Teams Companies such as MACTEC, a national engineering and remediation firm, bring engineering and site remediation to the table. The Atlanta office has teamed with Pouncey to produce some highly respected projects. The jewel in their crowns: the Atlantic Station project now under construction in midtown Atlanta, which combines residential and commercial design on the site of a former steel factory. The 138-acre site endured heavy, dirty use for about 100 years and became thoroughly polluted with petroleum constituents, lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, and other chemicals, along with about a million cubic yards of slag steel.

GRAND VISTA: Positioned just opposite midtown Atlanta, the Atlantic Station brownfield development (partially visible in foreground) has drawn national attention. Careful management of polluted areas makes the site suitable for both commercial and residential living.
GRAND VISTA: Positioned just opposite midtown Atlanta, the Atlantic Station brownfield development (partially visible in foreground) has drawn national attention. Careful management of polluted areas makes the site suitable for both commercial and residential living.

Nonetheless, thanks to using a method of remediation described as “risk-based,” MACTEC was able to appease both the EPA and city regulators while at the same time being allowed to work on a fast-track schedule. This kept costs down, allowing the developers to ultimately turn a profit on the project.

Chuck Ferry, a senior engineer with MACTEC, worked on Atlantic Station. He notes that the success of the site depended on dividing it up based on the level of remediation needed.

“There were 29 areas to be cleaned up,” Ferry recalls. “The rest consisted of low-level contaminates that we could address with containment.”

By containment, he means permanently capping off certain areas of the site. “Regulations require that you have to have either 2 feet of clean topsoil or a hard cover,” he explains. Sometimes, Ferry notes, it makes more economic sense to use a hard cover to lock in contaminants because removing and replacing topsoil is very pricey. On Atlantic Station, the company spent $2 million to bring in 250,000 tons of soil.

Basic Rules Making brownfield development work, of course, requires a new set of estimating skills. First, Pouncey says, the project has to start with a good location—whether that value comes from proximity to jobs, a great view, or the accessibility of mass transit. Dan Grogan, project manager at MACTEC in Atlanta, notes that the higher initial cost of remediating a site can often be offset by the availability of nearby or existing infrastructure—an advantage over greenfield development in the suburbs.

“You also need to become aware of incentives early,” says Pouncey, “and whether a project qualifies for them.” Those incentives may include deferred taxes from the city, faster permitting, density bonuses, etc. “What you end up doing is looking at your overall land cost and determining what your minimum density has to be,” he adds.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA, Atlantic City, NJ.