Redevelopment of Obsolete Land Uses in Your Community

Last Updated: June 14, 2024

Redevelopment occurs when real estate in your neighborhood or city is enhanced through new construction on previously occupied land or through substantial renovation of existing structures. Frequently the process begins with demolition of a building or several buildings that the developer perceives as obsolete, or too expensive or complicated to rehabilitate. 

In this section we try to give you the benefit of some of our redevelopment experiences as city planners. But we have to warn you that unlike building subdivisions, each property and the challenges presented are unique. That's what makes it fun though.

building demolition

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, it may be explained best by giving a range of examples.  Redevelopment might mean a new mixed-use project involving demolition or vacant land where buildings existed previously.  Such projects reduce traffic congestion and give the neighborhood a boost. Or it might be a gradual downtown revitalization program consisting of both rehabilitation of existing properties and addition of new infill buildings to renew prosperity for the entire community. (Article continues below topics directory, or use search box at the top of the page.)

The term can mean anything from a big facelift for an existing site to a major reconfiguration of land, featuring construction of an entire new landscape and set of buildings. In the U.K. and the Commonwealth, the term is sometimes used interchangeably with the term regeneration. (For more on the subtle but real distinctions, see our answer to a visitor question about the differences between regeneration and redevelopment.)

The continuum from simplest to most complex in the U.S. is something like this:

  • An existing building or complex is refurbished and the land and building uses are aligned with current market trends.
  • Infill housing or commercial development adds density (typically described in housing units per acre) or intensity (greater physical or economic activity) to a site that already contains some buildings.
  • Construction occurs on a vacant site that was occupied within the memory of some people in your community.
  • Existing buildings are demolished and new ones constructed.
  • Clean-up and then construction occurs on vacant land formerly part of an industrial yard or other land use that contaminated the soils.

Sometimes the program includes re-use of a few residential lots or a vacant commercial complex in a way that permits reconstructing a street grid to create walkability, as in a suburban retrofit.

Other times a community faces the problem of a well-defined area of under-performing real estate. For example, Granville Island, actually a peninsula extending into False Creek in Vancouver, was once a failing 37 acre industrial area. Now it's fashionable and fun, with a public markets, museums, abundant arts, a boutique area, and other cool things.

There is no doubt that you know of other projects that have occurred near you.

Or the definition of redevelopment could expand to encompass decisions about what to do with entire sections of a shrinking city.  Decision makers and activists in such cities need to become experts on approaches that work in a weak real estate market.

The Process for Occupied Sites That Will Be Re-Used

Typically redevelopment begins with assessing the current condition of and market for the site. If there is no change in ownership, of course data about the site already exists, and owners and managers simply need to research the current real estate market.

If the market is brisk for the existing land use, the simplest solution will be to renovate and upgrade building exteriors and interiors to the extent necessary to be competitive. Tenants may need to change to fit the needs, tastes, and pocketbooks of the neighborhood or surrounding market area. Where the market will support an upgrade in tenants, property owners may choose to renovate in a style that would attract those more upscale businesses capable of paying higher rents.

If the market for the existing use is poor or mediocre, though, the next step is to consult commercial brokers and community marketing professionals in your city or state about other potential uses of the property.

If an owner is contemplating the sometimes expensive and frustrating process of changing zoning and land uses, at least he or she deserves to know if there is a lively demand for the expected future use.

Ethical considerations also may come into play in this early stage of planning. What will become of the current residents or existing businesses? Conscientious developers will want to avoid displacement to the extent possible, perhaps providing for them within the footprint of the property to be redeveloped, or maybe offering assistance in relocating in a way that is satisfactory to those who would need to move.

To dig into that issue further, read our page about gentrification. There, as on this page, we are not against gentrification but we definitely don't like displacement unless the process in fact upgrades the surroundings for residents and viable businesses in a different location.

Redeveloping Vacant Land and Buildings

Now let's move to the more mainstream meaning of the term, in which the land and/or buildings have been vacant for some time. The owner is wondering what to do. Especially long time owners sometimes become pessimistic and therefore passive about managing the land, waiting for some better opportunity to come their way.

Sometimes the municipal government is more concerned than the owner, or the city may have become the owner through tax foreclosure or some other process.

We think vacant land within an otherwise urban area is an invitation to problems. At the very least, it signals a lack of demand for and interest in your neighborhood. So if you're involved in the neighborhood association, be concerned, even if no one else seems to care.

Someone, whether it's the owner, government, neighborhood association, or concerned citizen, needs to begin investigating the economic development potential of this site.

If you represent the city or the neighborhood, work on getting the owner excited about the possibility of new things, or at least instill some fear of code enforcement if he or she is determined to be pessimistic about the economic outlook.  If you have a vacant property registration ordinance, be sure that it is being enforced on the property in question to the fullest extent allowed by the ordinance. Be sure to investigate the possibility that he or she is not doing anything because of lack of financial capability, given the magnitude of the problem.

If buildings need to be demolished, work with the owner to try to obtain agreement on this point first. Use code enforcement to force demolition if possible. If not, maybe you can work with the owner to obtain a subsidy for demolition funding from governmental, charitable, or even large neighborhood corporations or foundations.

Involve the municipal government in determining an acceptable overall plan for the site, which would facilitate possible governmental financing incentives such as tax increment financing to be offered. In larger cities with many properties in need of redevelopment, you may have trouble attracting the attention of an overworked staff. However, we are thinking of several instances in our professional experience when one determined elderly woman or one persistent couple succeeded in making a particular land parcel a high priority for local government officials.

Work with the local chamber of commerce, if you have one, and any local and state economic agencies, railroad or utility new business departments, or a small business or entrepreneurship support center if your problem building and site is a small one. If there's an angle for a commercial Realtor, attract the attention of one.

Now we need to state the obvious, because some neighborhoods miss this point. When you want to generate redevelopment, you need a developer.  (Well, we told you it was an obvious point.  But it's amazing how many neighborhoods underestimate the challenge of finding a developer willing to risk finances, time, energy, and reputation on a challenging project.)

So if the current owner is not a developer, defined as a person who can conceptualize a project, handle the permitting process, supervise architects, manage construction, and market a property successfully, you need to find one.  In fact, a good developer often can help an owner understand the potential of a property better than a neighborhood group can do this work.

If the current owner wants to sell the property, you can disregard his or her tastes in developers, but of course that owner must be very involved in attracting and selecting a developer if ownership is to be retained.

Some projects will be very difficult, so your process of finding a developer willing to work with a particular plot of land will tell you a lot about the problems that lie ahead.  But the right developer for the situation will take it all in stride and understand that partnerships with the public sector will be necessary to address extreme situations.

This comment raises the point that when your neighborhood association, commercial district, or city government searches for a developer, we recommend that you always try to gain as many perspectives as possible from each developer that you interview. To maximize your learning, try to meet each developer out on the site instead of simply talking by email or phone.

Even if you found that developer that you trust as a worthy partner, the neighborhood and owners need to begin to brainstorm along with a developer about what can be done. Many developers like to play it safe and repeat types of projects with which they are unfamiliar. Most will need a nudge to consider other options. This is where you need to begin discussing adaptive re-use if the previous land use of the property is no longer economically, physically, or legally viable.

In cases where the previous use can be feasible if the property is freshened up a bit and if there is a new operator, simply share your interest in recycling buildings as quickly and effectively as possible.

After you have a developer interested in redeveloping the property, begin working with the local government to get them excited about the project. Local and state incentives, and some federal ones, may exist.

If part of the project will include housing, read about mixed-use techniques and affordable housing.

You'll need your local government fully on board, though, if you want to obtain state or federal credits or participation in the project. You also might need tax increment financing or some other type of tax abatement to make the deal work. If you are a developer or a neighborhood association, don't by-pass local government in the early discussion of the project; this would be a big human relations mistake.

When you have completed your environmental assessment (which probably will require the help of a professional), you have a complete handle on your zoning situation and what it permits, and you have the strong support of your local government and any neighborhood organizations in the area, that's when all professionals and advocates involved can come up with a reasonable game plan.

But what happens if you are a developer, and you have a willing seller and a cooperative city government, but you have a reluctant neighborhood association or a group of neighbors who outright oppose your project?  This calls for meeting with the opponents in person, repeatedly if necessary, to answer questions and give reassurances. 

We have found that often neighborhood residents have fears that will seem outlandish to developers, but are very real to the ordinary folks. Developers should be ready to compromise and to address specific concerns to the extent possible and economically feasible. 

If you are discussing a large redevelopment project, developers  and neighborhoods should be willing to negotiate a community benefits agreement in which residents give up their opposition in return for a contractual agreement addressing neighborhood concerns.

And in today's times, it needs to be creative. The competition can be stiff. Every large city has numerous opportunities to re-purpose sites that have become dilapidated, abandoned, or economically obsolete, and each of them presents challenges.

The easiest projects already have been picked up by the private market. So if you've been stuck with a site for several years, be realistic about its probable lack of market appeal in its present condition or configuration.

Differences Between Previously Built Sites and New Construction

Re-use of previous building sites is likely to be more expensive than construction on what is known as greenfields, or land that hasn't been used for urban purposes before (at least in recent memory).

The reasons for this greater expense are the high probability that some type of professional environmental assessment will be needed, more difficult regulatory hurdles because older configurations of land and buildings don't fit neatly into today's regulations, and the possibility that infrastructure (anything from streets to water mains to sewers to street lighting) will have to be rebuilt along with the buildings.

Rehabilitating buildings is often more expensive than new construction simply because of the unique challenges they present in terms of a lack of standard sizes and conditions of building members.

A builder can scrape off a site and be ready to go within days. A contractor dealing with a previous building site may have to haul off industrial waste or left-behind litter and solid waste, deal with the regulatory implications of brownfields, demolish buildings, remove rubble, replace soil, and then be more careful with site preparation.

Particularly if the site formerly was an industrial campus or some type of complex where not all underground utilities may be known, the contractors have to be more cautious than the developer in simply preparing for new construction.

In a regulatory sense, the new use might require a new configuration of the lot or lots, with re-subdivision a possibility. Zoning may have to be changed, or zoning variances might have to be sought.

Advantages of Redevelopment

Here is our summary of the advantages of redevelopment:

  • Keeping land uses economically viable is critical to keeping up property values on adjacent properties.
  • Re-use of land adjacent to other developed land is important for preventing all the economic, environmental, and social ills of urban sprawl.
  • Older buildings offer the potential for wonderful character, quirkiness, and interest.  As a result, they can command premium sale prices and rent when fully rehabilitated to fit today's tastes and market.
  • The community may better be able to connect with its history if some aspects of it are preserved.  Preservation often requires a change of land or building use.

Be Prepared for the Difficulties of Working with Brownfields

A brownfield by definition is a property on which the possible presence of contaminants, pollution, or hazardous or toxic wastes is suspected.

Even the thought of brownfields issues discourages many developers, so you need to learn about the topic if you're serious about understanding why your community doesn't attract more action.

Former service stations, garages, and dry cleaning establishments will be considered clean-up sites, so don't underestimate this process because the property of interest wasn't ever a factory.  Your shopping center you would like to demolish partially may be full of asbestos.

If you (and you is whoever is advocating for the re-use of a site) do not have a complete history of the site, now is the time to begin gathering that information. Rely on historical governmental records or maybe the local history buff. You need to learn what types of activities were conducted on the property and whether there is any possibility that the building or the soils will be considered contaminated.

Planning That Involves an Entire District 

Up until now, we have been describing a process with one owner involved, or maybe two or three.  However, two important types of long-term projects typically have many property owners involved:  downtowns and waterfronts.

Downtown revitalization is virtually a non-stop process. While many of the principles discussed on this page apply, the many special considerations involved in successfully updating a town center are described on the linked page.

There's nothing like a long view over water for the "wow" factor in a city or town. See our waterfront planning page if your town sits on a stream, river, lake, or ocean.  These projects may be even more complex than downtown because the owners involved often have little sense of kinship with one another, and the range of land uses may be more disparate than downtown too.

Of course waterfront work goes hand in hand with clean water, so if the political will or vision for waterfront planning is lacking, you may start with the volunteer clean-up approach.  We've created a place on our site where you can upload photos and a short description of your stream clean-up, so please see what others are doing. (Rivers are included of course!)

Dead Mall Solutions

Shopping center re-use is yet another specific challenge. It's clear that we've built too many shopping centers already, so some towns won't make these centers viable again.

You need the many ideas on the linked page to help you, whether you plan to struggle along and continue to work with the premise that you need retail, or not. If you decide on another use, all the information on this page becomes very relevant to you.

Of course, many strip centers are past their prime as well; many present big challenges. We  added a whole page on redoing a strip mall.  We believe that one of the better ideas for recycling these centers is to add a row of buildings close to the street. These shallow buildings allowing for small shops are called liner buildings.

Then the space between the old strip center and the new building line at the street becomes a courtyard or perhaps a revamped parking lot using new Low Impact Development (LID) techniques to handle stormwater runoff. The old strip center then might become housing or offices, while a smaller amount of attractive and supportable retail is located along the street frontage.

Marketing a Site

We are describing this process very idealistically, in which you proceed effortlessly from concern about a site, to engaging with a willing owner, through convincing your local government to participate actively in the redevelopment process, to selecting a developer, and on to determining and executing a game plan.

Rarely does it happen this way.

So when you start to see the process slow down, it's another time to consult the smartest marketing gurus you can find in economic development, commercial or residential real estate, historic preservation, and green building.

Read good online sources and books to pick up ideas relevant to your particular situation, talk to neighboring towns, network locally, and go to conferences and meetings to the extent your budget and time constraints will allow.

When searching for ideas for re-use of a property, borrow shamelessly from what has worked in other places. You can't afford to burden yourself with thinking you have to be totally original, when you're dealing with the threat of a site that begs for a new life. In fact, our adaptive re-use page has some great lists of possible changes of land use.

Need for Infill Construction

As you're planning a project, remember it's possible not only to re-use existing buildings, but also to add "infill" buildings that would enhance the bottom line for the development.  Small downtowns or commercial areas may need additional buildings, and many times struggling shopping centers can be rescued through the addition of infill housing. Mixed-use development offers energy conservation potential and transportation convenience.

In many cases large previously used sites formerly were industrial sites, so you may have some large expanses of yard that were used for outdoor storage. You can either turn those into attractive open space or add more buildings to bring the development to critical mass.

If you decide to infill, obviously you need a practical architect on the project who can complement existing architecture without being a slave to it.

An exciting place is created by complexity of some sort. If you're in a small town, you need to be an unpredictable small town. So if you have an old cotton gin that you're redeveloping into housing, make it slightly different from the rest of your town, without clashing. In cases such as this, you might want to try graduated density zoning.

Graduated density zoning is keeping the zoning on the periphery of a site at the same approximate density and intensity as the adjacent property, but then as one progresses toward the center of the site, gradually increasing the density. This is a way to add density while minimizing neighborhood objections.

If there are interior areas on the site that are not needed for parking and loading, we recommend that you build more intensely. Even if you think you need all that empty ground for surface parking, reconsider whether a parking structure wouldn't allow you to add density that would be good for the community overall. The expense of the parking structure often can be justified on the basis of the greater revenue from developing an additional building.

All in all, approach redevelopment determined to make some strategic additions and subtractions, re-imagine how spaces and buildings can be used, tackle the tough challenges by enlarging your circle of public and private sector partners, and work really hard to reap abundant rewards for your community. Now it's time for you to start reading the pages in this section.

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