Eight Years Later: EPA Assists Iowa City’s Sustainable Recovery After Historic 2008 Flood

By David Doyle

In June 2008, parts of eastern Iowa were devastated by a 500-year flood, the second such event in 15 years. Total losses from the flooding were estimated at nearly $3.5 billion.

Flooding in eastern Iowa, June 2008

The disaster’s greatest impact was on Cedar Rapids, where more than 5,200 homes and almost 1,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed. However, the flood also affected dozens of other communities along the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa, and Mississippi rivers and their many tributaries.

My Role in Tornado Recovery

The previous year, I had been assigned to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) long-term community recovery efforts in response to the EF-5 tornado that devastated Greensburg, Kan. This was my first opportunity to participate in a long-term recovery effort in response to a natural disaster.

Aftermath of Iowa flooding, June 2008

EPA’s traditional role after disasters primarily had been responding to the threat and impacts from the release of hazardous materials, along with addressing the impacts on community water and wastewater systems. Long-term recovery was a relatively new role for EPA and involved providing assistance with sustainable community planning to make a community more sustainable and resilient to future disasters.

My role in Greensburg was to help FEMA develop the long-term community recovery plan which was completed after several months of work and quickly implemented, eventually making Greensburg arguably the greenest city in the country.

In 2008, I was again assigned to work with FEMA in Iowa on post-disaster, sustainable long-term planning efforts. I quickly realized that making such plans after a flood was very different than for a tornado.

A Very Different Experience

While Greensburg was a one-square-mile city, much of Iowa was impacted in one way or another by this flood. Fortunately, then Governor Chet Culver established a state government agency called the Rebuild Iowa Office, which spent considerable time immediately after the disaster working with FEMA to determine the long-term recovery needs of communities.

Flooding in eastern Iowa, June 2008

Meanwhile, learning from my experience in Greensburg, I started to reach out to various EPA headquarters offices looking for assistance, knowing there was no funding available from EPA Region 7 to assist with the needed recovery planning.

I quickly found that EPA’s offices of Sustainable Communities and Brownfields & Land Revitalization were willing partners. Both provided funding to bring in technical experts on economic development, transportation planning, and sustainable urban design.

Iowa City Makes the Most of EPA’s Assistance

The Iowa community that took most advantage of these resources was Iowa City, the state’s fourth largest city and home to the University of Iowa and a major medical center. For years, the city had been looking to redevelop an area south of their downtown. The 2008 flood gave them an opportunity to do just that.

This 30-square-block area, renamed the Riverfront Crossings District, includes an aging wastewater treatment plant, recycling center, animal shelter, and various other underutilized properties, many of which were impacted by the flooding.

Diagram from EPA’s “Enhancing Sustainable Communities with Green Infrastructure”

After conducting a retail and housing market analysis, along with a transit-oriented development study, both commissioned by EPA, it was decided that this area could be transformed into a mixed-use, pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhood. Again, utilizing EPA funding, contractors with expertise in sustainable urban planning initiated a process to develop conceptual plans for such a neighborhood. After considerable interaction with local stakeholders, EPA finalized these plans in May 2011.

Since EPA’s Involvement

As it takes years – not only for plans to be finalized from conception, but also for them to be implemented – I recently asked Karen Howard, Iowa City’s assistant planning director, to update me on what has happened in the community since EPA’s involvement.

She said a Riverfront Crossings District Master Plan was adopted in 2013, along with a form-based zoning code for the district in 2014 (one of the recommendations from the initial EPA technical assistance grant).

Illustration of Riverfront Crossings District restoration after removal of wastewater plant

Since the form-based code was adopted, private investment in new construction totaled about $160 million, with many projects still under construction, and another $100 to $150 million in private investment is in the planning stages. This is only a small fraction of the redevelopment potential of the Riverfront Crossings District that Howard expects in the coming years.

New private building projects include two new hotels, a 6-story Class A office building, stand-alone restaurant, convenience store/gas station, craft brewery, multi-family and mixed-use buildings with ground floor retail space, and a considerable number of residential apartments and condominiums.

Public investment in the district includes the decommissioned and demolished, flood-prone wastewater treatment plant; the first phase of a new riverfront park, a 600-space public parking facility (under construction), new ambulance and medical examiners’ offices (under construction), and a new University of Iowa School of Music (completed in fall 2016). A number of street improvement projects are also in the planning stages.

The old saying, “With disaster brings opportunity,” certainly couldn’t be more applicable to the sustainable recovery efforts that rejuvenated Iowa City after the flood of 2008.

About the Author: David Doyle serves as the Sustainable Communities Coordinator at EPA Region 7. David has a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Syracuse University, and a Master of Science in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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EPA Makes a Visible Difference in St. Louis Community: Transforming Pruitt Igoe’s Legacy into Source of Hope

By David Doyle

Since early 2014, I’ve been the point person for EPA’s involvement in the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2) in St. Louis. SC2 is a presidential initiative that brings federal agencies together as a team to address economic issues in communities that have undergone economic upheaval, and the social and environmental upheaval that accompanies it.

The effort in St. Louis is led by EPA. We have a staff person at City Hall who works very closely with the mayor’s staff on identifying issues important to local stakeholders.

On one of our first visits, the city planning director and two of the mayor’s top aides gave us a tour of St. Louis. One of the aides, Eddie Roth, carried along a poster board with a city map taped to it with a bullseye drawn around a site on the city’s north side. He identified it as the former Pruitt Igoe housing complex.

History of Pruitt Igoe

Demolition of Pruitt Igoe in 1976

Demolition of Pruitt Igoe in 1976

I’d heard a little bit about Pruitt Igoe, which I knew was a failed public housing complex, and I remembered seeing pictures of it being demolished, but little more. As Eddie explained, and I learned through additional research, it opened in 1954 and was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who later designed the World Trade Center in New York City. The tenants who moved from slum housing to the new complex initially considered it to be a vast improvement.

Within a couple years, however, flaws in the modernist design, coupled with underfunded maintenance by the city housing authorities, left the complex uninhabitable. It became a scene of crime and other social unrest until it was eventually vacated and demolished in 1976.

Used as a demolition landfill in the 1990s, the former Pruitt Igoe site is still laden with the foundation and other remnants of the complex. It remains to this day as a constant reminder to city residents of a failed experiment in providing safe, affordable housing to underserved citizens.

Focusing SC2 Efforts

Eddie’s pitch to us during the tour was that the focus of our SC2 efforts should be on this site. As the largest undeveloped contiguous piece of property in St. Louis, and also well located near downtown, major transportation corridors and civic assets, the rehabilitation of this property in his mind would have a major impact on the city, not only physically but also psychologically.

I decided to spend some time looking more closely into how the 35-acre site could be reused.

Several environmental assessments had been conducted on the site over the years, which indicated some environmental issues existed on the property from pre-Pruitt Igoe uses, but these issues weren’t a major problem. The city drafted a risk assessment but never completed it.

Working with city and state staff, EPA completed the risk assessment and an accompanying soil management plan that we submitted to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and led to a “no further action” determination being officially issued. This determination meant that no further environmental remediation is necessary at the site, as long as it is used for non-residential purposes. Such a determination allows private developers to reassess the financial risk associated with investing in the redevelopment of such properties.

Looking Forward

Current debris-laden site of former housing complex

Current debris-laden site of former housing complex

EPA is currently gearing up to develop plans for addressing the large amounts of demolition debris piled on the site, along with the foundation and other remnants of the former housing complex.

Hopefully, by the time EPA’s efforts at the site end sometime in 2017, we’ll be able to leave the city a plan they can use to move forward, and change the perception of this property from one of hopelessness to one of hopefulness.

About the Author: David Doyle serves as the Sustainable Communities Coordinator at EPA Region 7. David has a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Syracuse University, and a Master of Science in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

EPA and DOL Support For Auto Community Redevelopment

Cross- posted from the Department of Labor Auto Recovery Blog

By Mathy Stanislaus

As I meet with mayors and talk with community leaders throughout the country, I witness first-hand the significant challenges communities face as they work to rebuild their economies. Taking action to support economic development and community revitalization while protecting public health and the environment is a long-standing commitment at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Our assistance and funding to support redevelopment and economic recovery is helping communities, on the ground, to revitalize their neighborhoods.

EPA’s Brownfields program provides funding and technical assistance to help communities in assessing, cleaning up, and redeveloping former manufacturing facilities. Brownfields may be contaminated properties, but, once cleaned up; they can be transformed into important community assets. Often, these properties are in key locations with existing infrastructure. With the Brownfields program, we are making investments to help leverage redevelopment at these sites. I believe that removing blight and redeveloping the industrial properties that often sit at the heart of a community’s downtown can renew both the spirit and the economy of our cities.

Since the program’s inception, EPA’s brownfields investments have leveraged more than $18.3 billion in cleanup and redevelopment. Over the years, this relatively small investment of federal funding has leveraged more than 75,000 jobs. This year, our grants were targeted to communities that experienced auto and other major plant closures, and in the last three years alone, EPA’s Brownfields Program provided more than $15 million in financial support to auto communities.

The Brownfields Program is about rebuilding communities. Today, EPA is partnering with the White House Council on Auto Communities and Workers and other Federal agencies to identify opportunities to target federal government grant resources specifically to the needs of auto communities.

Under my leadership, EPA is working closely with the Department of Labor (DOL) to help bring necessary coordination and resources to these communities. We are working with our state partners and local officials to identify opportunities for flexibility within EPA’s regulatory programs to encourage the revitalization of these former auto plants. We are also working closely with The Manufacturing Alliance for Communities on a series of auto community roundtables that are structured to allow for local officials to identify their resource needs, as well as their visions for the revitalization these sites in their communities. These auto community roundtables bring together economic development leaders, elected officials and investors from the public and private sectors that are committed to redeveloping former auto properties.

Moving forward, DOL and EPA will continue to coordinate with The Manufacturing Alliance for Communities and the Mayors Manufacturing Coalition, the RACER Trust, and charitable and philanthropic organizations such as the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, to assess needs and to deliver resources, and to develop a comprehensive toolbox of technical assistance available including the timelines and processes for applying for these competitive resources. By developing this comprehensive tool box we are working to identify potential ways for private foundation money to provide coordinated technical assistance that will leverage available federal and state resources. We also ask that communities continue to identify priority properties and work in partnership with EPA and other federal, state, local, public, private and philanthropic partners to identify their resource needs and garner their community assets.

At EPA, many of our programs and efforts focus on ways to improve the quality of life in local communities. We realize that to move projects forward it takes a variety of resources. In 2012 EPA is looking forward to continuing to make investments in communities through all aspects of our Brownfields program so that this Administration’s efforts on behalf of American communities will continue to support redevelopment and economic recovery, and help rebuild and revitalize neighborhoods and communities across the country.

About the author: Mathy Stanislaus, Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER)

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.