Remembering a Brownfield Legend: Charlie Bartsch’s Last Interview
The beginning of the 1st EPA brownfield grant cycle without legendary guru Charlie Bartsch recalls memories of the magnanimous trailblazer who lived for brownfield revitalization.
Last week, U.S. EPA kicked off another difference-making and catalytic round of its brownfield grant competition. Objectively scored to be true to the competitive spirit of America itself, and providing vital funding that often is the only thing to move a project forward when a property is caught in brownfield limbo (locked out of the regularly functioning real estate market), the storied and successful EPA Brownfields Program enjoys practically unanimous bipartisan support among policy wonks and politicians alike.
The fact that the brownfield program has historically leveraged nearly $18 for every $1 invested into the program helps prove its effectiveness and garner such sustainable policy support. Even in hyper-partisan times such as these, the tremendous public need and good in eliminating real estate and environmental negatives from our communities and replacing them with positive productive uses is apparent, even a priority. Indeed, earlier this year, Congress enacted the country’s first brownfield reauthorization bill when the omnibus included the bipartisan BUILD Act.
Beyond reauthorization, the BUILD Act made several brownfield policy upgrades and changes, long discussed in brownfield circles, including new preferences for clean energy development (e.g. brightfields) and waterfront/floodplain sites (a.k.a. "bluefields"). Congress even left itself room to substantially increase brownfield funding, but it must get around to actually appropriating the hard money at some point in the future before additional grant awards can be made.
The bipartisan BUILD Act was the product of years of policy work in and out of Washington. Versions of the BUILD Act were introduced into more than one previous Congress, each time with both Republican and Democrat co-sponsors.
And each time with the expert input of brownfielding professionals like Charlie Bartsch working diligently in the background. One of the founding fathers of brownfield redevelopment policy, Charlie was there when brownfields were born. His early policy work and many published works helped lay the foundation for the modern brownfield redevelopment industry to rise to the great, sophisticated heights we know today.
This was Charlie’s season. With holidays on the calendar every couple weeks, family and friends to visit across the country and the big EPA brownfield grant solicitation open, Charlie Bartsch buzzed with uncommon energy from meeting to meeting, call to call and flight to flight on the back end of every year.
Each year Charlie must have answered a million questions from hundreds of brownfield grant applicants. And over each holiday season, though it be the busiest time on the brownfield calendar, he somehow managed to visit his many family and friends stretched coast-to-coast across this great land that Charlie loved so much.
Two days before he suddenly passed earlier this year, though he was packing furiously for a long European vacation, Charlie made the time to speak with a senior at Cornell, Julia Greenberg, who had selected brownfields as the topic for her culminating project in an Environmental Policy Processes class exploring how environmental policy is created and influenced at the federal level. A natural educator who taught classes himself for many years, Charlie probably couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet a young person actually interested in the process of brownfield policy-making.
Anyone who knew Charlie would tell you she had him at “Environmental Policy Processes class.”
The class required a written policy brief on a specific environmental issue. As part of the brief, students were required to conduct informational interviews to understand the perspectives of different stakeholders in the policy arena. Simple enough, most interviews were conducted in brief telephone calls.
But Charlie was in town and wanted to meet the student who selected brownfields to write about in person. And so, on January 15, 2018 at 11 a.m. at Union Station in Washington DC, Charlie Bartsch sat down with the Cornell senior for what would be his last interview.
Ever affable, Charlie made quite an impression.
“I immediately went home from the interview and told my parents how incredibly kind and helpful he was,” she said. Charlie’s enthusiasm was as effusive and contagious as ever. “He was so excited to talk about brownfields,” Julia gushed afterwards. “And [he] even changed his plans so we could keep talking for longer.”
Charlie Bartsch was not one to pass up the opportunity to inspire a brownfield hero, whatever their age.
In their policy discussion, Charlie covered the basics of brownfield mechanics that made it work so well and do so much good. Brownfields were carved out of Superfund, Charlie explained. The EPA recognized that there was a category of sites whose levels of contamination were not high enough to qualify them as Superfund, but were deemed too risky by developers and financial lenders because they presumed that these "brownfields" were too dirty and expensive to develop.
Through the brownfield program, Charlie pointed out, the public sector intervenes to start assessing and cleaning up a site when there is no impetus for the private sector to redevelop the property. As a preparation device and momentum starter, the policy role of the brownfield program is to achieve and convey a sense of comfort to potential developers and investors. If a grant via the brownfield program can generate the environmental assessment that no developer would “waste” the money on, and create data that characterizes site risks properly, then developers may see the site’s true value rather than presuming the worst.
In fact, nearly 1 in 5 sites passing through the EPA brownfield program barely suffer any environmental contamination issues at all. It’s more so brownfield stigma that causes the market to pass over and avoid these sites.
On the new brownfield reauthorization, Charlie welcomed the prospect of additional funding. Without it, Charlie warned that EPA would give out less grants because the amount awarded per grant had been increased. Larger grant awards are welcome to the projects that do win, but the drawback is that the larger awards necessitate that a fewer number of grant awards can be made. In an already hyper-competitive and oversubscribed application pool of needy brownfield projects, in which past applications with perfect scores have not won, reducing the number of brownfield grant awards is an unfortunate missed opportunity to maximize a high impact policy.
And Charlie specifically lamented the potential for area-wide planning grants to be “diluted” by being folded into the general assessment grant.
You can read Charlie’s thoughts and enjoy a complete brownfield policy brief in Ms. Greenberg’s very well written brownfield policy paper accepted by Cornell University. Like all of Charlie’s work, Julia’s Charlie-inspired paper provides a valuable primer for anyone seeking to understand the history, basics and latest developments in the world of brownfield policy.
While there can be no substitute for Charlie and the innumerable bricks he laid into the foundation of U.S. brownfield policy, the brownfielders continuing to do this important work, sometimes under heroic circumstances, can take comfort in knowing that the policy momentum he helped cultivate and sustain continues to build. And Charlie Bartsch can rest in peace know that his legacy endures, his life's work goes on and his hopes for a healthier, happier world lives on in the hearts, heads, and hard-working hands of every brownfielder who follows in his footsteps.
Rutgers Geology Major Recipient of First Charlie Bartsch Scholarship
Last month, Rutgers University geology major Ethan Siegenthaler became the first recipient of the Charlie Bartsch Brownfield Scholarship, established by BCONE to honor Charlie's legacy. Read the complete story on BCONE's website. Established following Charlie's passing, The Charlie Bartsch Brownfield Scholarship considers undergraduate and graduate students at colleges and universities in the northeast region who have declared their majors in the myriad of fields that work in the brownfields industry: Environmental science, engineering, geology, law, government, real estate, finance, community development, computer science, and Charlie’s academic background: Urban policy and planning and political science.