This fall, when the Dallas Mavericks basketball team takes the court and the Dallas Stars don their hockey skates, they will do so in a new $420 million downtown arena, where fans can dine on tortilla soup and sushi, watch replays on an 80,000-lb. scoreboard and anticipate the day (coming soon) when Internet data ports at their seats will keep them wired even when the action below does not. Chances are no one will be giving a second thought to the toxic mess that was here just four years ago--an industrial wasteland of asbestos and lead, arsenic and benzene and the carcinogenic remains of a 19th century crematory.
The American Airlines Center, which opened last week with a sellout concert by the Eagles, is the centerpiece of the 72-acre Victory project, one of the nation's largest and most successful cleanups of a "brownfield"--the Environmental Protection Agency's term for contaminated areas with the potential for reuse. Rising from the ashes of a 100-year-old city dump, a railroad maintenance facility, an aging power plant and a row of abandoned grain silos, the Victory project is a $1 billion development catering to road-weary Dallasites who want to live, work and play downtown.
"Victory is a model for brownfield development. What used to be an empty field has real potential to boost downtown Dallas," says local EPA boss Stan Hitt, whose offices overlook the arena site. Mayor Ron Kirk, who supported the project despite early opposition in town, is fairly beaming. "The manufacturers and polluters abandoned this 30 years ago, but we've cleaned it up and put it back on the tax rolls," he says. And Victory is just one big win for Dallas. Not counting that project, the city has leveraged $600,000 in EPA grants into $835 million in private investment, remaking some 1,200 acres of brownfields.
Dallas isn't alone in recognizing that developers hungry for cheap industrial sites help keep dollars and jobs from fleeing to the suburbs. Environmentalists too are beginning to see brownfields' redevelopment as a way to preserve pristine spaces in the exurbs. Even the EPA, whose Superfund efforts in the 1980s caused many landlords to fence in and lock up sites, has loosened its regulatory oversight since 1995. While developers could technically still be held liable for past contamination, nonlitigation agreements between Washington and 16 states--including Texas--are a wink and a nod by the feds to encourage the cleanup of sites with lesser contamination. "If we can provide Superfund liability relief to people who clean up and redevelop brownfields, we will encourage more cleanup throughout the private sector," EPA boss Christine Todd Whitman told TIME. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed brownfield legislation with liability relief last April, and a House bill, further protecting developers from pollution lawsuits, may be introduced this week.
A national brownfields initiative, launched five years ago by Vice President Al Gore, has a new champion in George W. Bush, who budgeted $98 million for the effort this year--$5 million more than Bill Clinton. "The Superfund program of today has evolved and is focusing not only on protecting public health and the environment but also on reuse and development," Whitman says.