Goodbye Charlie Bartsch: Brownfield Universe Loses One of its Brightest Stars
Charlie Bartsch, great brownfield explainer and economic redevelopment policy extraordinaire, passed unexpectedly en route to Berlin.
It is with the deepest sadness and regret that we mourn the passing of beloved brownfield superhero Charles William Bartsch on Wednesday, January 17th. Charlie, as he was known by all who knew him, was a true original and the preeminent brownfield redevelopment policy expert.
Charlie was there in the beginning. He was such a formative figure in the days when federal brownfield policy was formalizing in the late 80’s and early 90’s that he became known as "Mr. Brownfield." Many even credit Charlie with coining the term “brownfield” to this day – which might be true in spirit, if not in origin, for the degree to which his work was able to shape the term’s adaptation to the real estate redevelopment lexicon.
Indeed, Charlie’s legend was only slightly larger than the man himself. He did once, in fact, guesstimate an incredibly reliable estimate as to the number of brownfield properties in the U.S. on the spot, under the hot lights of Congressional testimony and the stiff demand of a House member to know just how many brownfields there were. He wanted a hard number. And he wanted it now.
The fate of future brownfield programs fell onto Charlie's shoulders.
But, as any brownfielder will tell you, knowing exactly how many brownfields there are is an almost impossible task. Answers vary widely and depend on what you mean by "brownfield" in the first place. It’s the stuff of half-page long footnotes, i.e. footnote 29 in the 1996 article "Brownfields of Dreams?" Challenges and Limits of Voluntary Cleanup Programs and Incentives by Joel B. Eisen at Rutgers University School of Law. It’s a difficult question to answer because the definition has subjective elements, there is insufficient nationwide data and because no one can be absolutely sure how much a particular property is contaminated until you start digging. You can’t even be sure a brownfield contaminated at all, as roughly twenty percent of properties to ever go through the U.S. EPA brownfield program have proven to be “clean.” It’s so hard that we’re still guessing at the real brownfield number today, even after several decades of data gathering and redevelopment work.
So, for Charlie to hit on a brownfield estimate anywhere in the ballpark on the spot and under pressure in the very early 1990’s would have been quite a feat. He did better. Pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts, as he would tell the story years later, Charlie quickly thought of recent brownfield counts done in cities he knew the best, such as Chicago, then extrapolated an average and multiplied by the number of cities in the U.S. After gathering his snap figure in his mind, Charlie leaned back into the microphone and, after all appropriate guesstimate disclaimers, gave the Congressman the hard number he was after.
There were about “500,000,” Charlie testified. More than on the mark, Charlie’s quick guesstimate is still the benchmark figure cited today.
More scientific methods came after Charlie’s early extrapolation estimate of 500,000 U.S. brownfields. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimated in the mid-1990’s that there may be 450,000 brownfields nationwide. The General Accounting Office estimated the number between 150,000 and 500,000.
It wasn’t the last time Charlie Bartsch’s best guess was good enough to take to the bank.
Charlie was instrumental is assembling the foundation of modern brownfield redevelopment policy and a plain-spoken, ever-traveling advocate who briefed thousands of lawmakers and local leaders over the years. Always on the road, Charlie was a featured fixture on the conference circuit constantly refreshing his policy picture for public consumption.
He was always sought out, always delivering his fresh, essential policy guidance. Charlie’s practical advice and clear direction provided actionable takeaways for tens of thousands of conference attendees who went home with their notes armed with the knowledge they needed to take their project to the next step.
Charlie dispensed difference-making guidance like a reflex action. He was all too happy to oblige any and every question from anyone. A charming and fun-loving font of wisdom, some of Charlie’s best advice could be encouraged over a pint of beer. And you could always expect to see at least one brownfield-to-brewery example in Charlie’s presentations–pulled from his ample field research on best practices. Brownfield best practices too. He had even toyed with the idea of a national brownfield-to-breweries tour and shared his fanciful interest in organizing one with several of his friends recently.
In his last position at EPA, Charlie was Senior Advisor for Economic Development to EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus, charged with promoting inter-agency and public-private financing partnerships to spur land revitalization and site reuse. A role uniquely suited for his breadth of talent and affable personality, he served as the point person in developing EPA’s manufacturing revitalization strategy, as part of the Obama Administration’s “Investing in Manufacturing Communities” (IMCP) initiative, helping to lead the inter-agency team in designing and carrying out this timely effort. Charlie worked closely with the EPA-DOT-HUD Partnership for Sustainable Communities, served as the AA’s representative on the EPA-wide green infrastructure task force and Hurricane Sandy recovery team, and advised the Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization on area-wide planning and auto communities revitalization financing strategies. He also helped lead EPA on the Obama Administration’s “Strong Cities/Strong Communities” and “Promise Zone” recovery initiatives, on OSWER’s EJ2014 equitable development proposals targeted to environmental justice communities, and on the Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability Initiative with Brazil.
Prior to his appointment at EPA, Charlie was Senior Fellow at ICF International, where he served as ICF’s brownfields and smart growth policy expert. Before that, he was Director of Brownfield Studies at the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington DC, a Capitol Hill public policy center affiliated with the bipartisan Northeast-Midwest Congressional and Senate Coalitions. Charlie was chair of the National Brownfield Association’s Advisory Board, chair of GroundworkUSA, and on the editorial board for the Bureau of National Affairs. In 2001, Charlie received the International Economic Development Council's Chairman's Award for Outstanding Service for ten years of work on brownfield policies and legislation. In 2013, he received a Brownfield Leadership award form the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals, for Lifetime Achievement.
Charlie received his Master’s in Urban Policy and Planning from the University of Illinois-Chicago, and his B.A. in political science and history from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. North Central College celebrated Charlie among their most outstanding alumni in 2013.
For more than 30 years, Charlie was dedicated to brownfield and community redevelopment/reuse strategies and financing. He provided training and technical assistance support in more than 200 communities in over 40 states.
He is the author and co-author of numerous reports and publications on brownfield opportunities, including the pioneering New Life for Old Building: Confronting Environmental and Economic Issues to Industrial Reuse in 1991. He also wrote numerous papers, including a series of formative papers of brownfield financing in the 1990’s, such as Financing Brownfield Reuse: Creative Use of Public Sector Programs, and he co-authored with Elizabeth Collaton the landmark Coming Clean for Economic Development and Brownfields: Cleaning and Reusing Contaminated Properties and Industrial Site Reuse and Urban Redevelopment— An Overview. Charlie also authored two annual reference resources, Brownfields "State of the States" and the Guide to Federal Brownfield Programs; and numerous other works relied on by his fellow professionals across the country.
Most recently, Charlie penned the forward for NYU Professor Barry Hersh’s book Urban Redevelopment: A North American Reader. And last week, Charlie was kind enough to contribute a guest post here on BL, with his reflections on the final tax bill passed last month.
Charlie was a friend and advisor to BL. He was always available as an expert, a soundboard and mentor. A natural and passionate teacher, Charlie always found the time to speak with the BL Team and, in recent days, even a senior at Cornell writing a brownfield paper and to him by BL. Charlie never turned down an inquiry or passed on the opportunity to pass his knowledge on.
At Brownfields 2017 last month in Pittsburgh, Charlie was scheduled for no less than seven events. And demand for his company and counsel lasted late into each evening in brewpubs around Pittsburgh.
“I sat next to Charlie at dinner our last night in Pittsburgh and he showed me his new business cards,” said BL CEO, Dan French, “they said ‘Original Brownfield Hero’, which was one of BL’s first t-shirts and he was having a lot of fun with it.” “But I told him how true it was,” Dan went on, “without Charlie I might have never understood the public sector brownfield problem and never had the idea to start Brownfield Listings.”
Immediately prior to his departure, Charlie and Dan spoke of their plans for 2018. In his final email to Dan, Charlie accepted Dan’s most recent overture with his typical glee, but let him know he was hitting the road once again. This time just for fun:
We rejoice in knowing that Charlie made it to Deutschland with his wings and is probably drinking a heavenly brew right now. We are eternally grateful for his guidance, wit, positivity, humor, friendship and ceaseless service to our great country. We aspire to leave so large a positive impact on the world as Charlie, who led legions of other brownfield heroes to act to revitalize their legacy sites. Charlie Bartsch leaves behind a much healthier planet and more productive economy than the one he found, and his own legacy of problem-solving and earnest diligence we must endeavor to carry on.
Thank you, Charlie.
Washington, DC, area friends are invited to join with Charlie's family and one another at Gawler's Funeral Home, 5130 Wisconsin Avenue, Washington, DC, Wednesday, January 24, from 3-8PM ET. Starting at 6:00 friends may offer remembrances. Gawler's Funeral Home is within walking distance of both the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights metro stations on the Red line.
A visitation will also be held in Chicago, Illinois at the Lawn Funeral home in Burbank on Friday Jan 26, from 3-8PM CT. Funeral service will follow Saturday morning.
A memorial celebration of Charlie’s life is being planned for the spring.
Watch Charlie's "Outstanding Alumni" video:
Below is portion of written testimony Charlie provided to Congress shortly after President Bush signed the Brownfield Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act into law in 2002:
Statement of Charles Bartsch Senior Policy Analyst for Economic Development/Brownfields Northeast-Midwest Institute on Using HUD’s BEDI Program to Enhance Brownfield Financing Opportunities before the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity | March 6, 2002
Madame Chairman and members of the Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify about federal program financing issues that affect the productive reuse of older, often contaminated industrial and commercial sites. I am Charles Bartsch, senior economic development policy analyst at the Northeast-Midwest Institute, and a specialist in brownfield issues. Since 1991, the Institute — working closely with the bi-partisan Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, currently co-chaired by Reps. Jack Quinn and Marty Meehan — has examined the relationship between environmental contamination and economic development. A key part of that effort has been identifying ways in which existing federal financing programs could be more creatively and usefully linked with the resource needs of brownfield sites.
The Institute has analyzed site reuse activities in nearly 100 jurisdictions – large cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Cleveland; mid-sized cities like Buffalo, Kansas City, Worcester, and Bridgeport; and small towns like Ocanto, Wisconsin, Glen Cove, New York, and Wyandotte, Michigan. Our research has indicated that, while the problems surrounding reuse of contaminated sites are crucial ones in the nation’s traditional industrial centers, they are by no means confined to such communities. The issue of brownfields is widespread, having surfaced in every state across the country. To address it, communities need practical public-sector tools and approaches that are easy to access and easy to use. This need is especially critical for small cities and towns with little staff capacity and resources of their own.
This hearing is especially timely. Just two months ago, on January 11, President Bush signed the Brownfield Revitalization and Environmental Restoration Act into law. That act sets the stage for new public-private partnerships that can resolve thorny liability issues that impede site reuse, and also clarifies the state-federal relationship regarding cleanup finality. These are solid steps forward. But brownfield challenges remain. Now, Congressional efforts must shift to focus on the most significant remaining barrier to brownfield redevelopment – financing.
The biggest hurdle that cities, communities, and the private sector face when trying to acquire and redevelop contaminated property is the lack of capital to carry out essential earlystage activities – site assessment, remediation planning, and the actual cleanup itself. Private financiers, on their own, are often not willing or able to provide the funding needed to take a brownfield property through the full redevelopment cycle. Moreover, the issue of brownfields has given rise to concerns about project risk and collateral value, complicating the traditional view of creditworthiness, and increasing transaction costs for these sites. There is a clear and critical role for [government] to play in helping to make the investments that can fill the brownfields capital gap and improve the market conditions for these properties.
... Site assessment and cleanup require financial resources that many public agencies and private firms lack and find difficult to secure. And without financing, brownfield reuse projects can not go forward, further undermining efforts to revive distressed, older industrial areas. The combined efforts of the public and private sectors will be needed to move properties into the realm of economic viability, and ultimately bring prosperity back to them...
To read Charlie's complete written remarks click here.
GUEST POST: Bartsch on Final Tax Bill Impact to Brownfield Financing (by Charlie Bartsch)