Defined by the U.S. Conference of Mayors as abandoned or underutilized properties whose redevelopment is hindered by either real or perceived environmental contamination, brownfields are an offshoot of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, otherwise known as Superfund.

The law discouraged redevelopment by lumping both gravely and less compromised land together. In 2002, the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act removed less contaminated sites from the Superfund list and absolved potential developers of liability associated with the negative impact of pollutants left behind by former owners and occupants.

The strategy's had its ups and downs since then, depending on federal priorities. The stimulus package increased funding for grants and revolving loans, making owners and developers more willing to endure the additional time — on average, several months to a year — and paperwork required to revitalize a brownfield. (EPA requires sites to be assessed according to federal standards and then entered into a state regulatory program that regulates remediation.) With Congress now focused on reducing the deficit, funding probably will tighten.

But in general, it's working. In 2002 there were roughly 600,000 brownfields; today there are 400,000.

The latest potential stumbling block is dioxin. EPA and environmentalists have been wrestling with just how toxic the compound is since 1985, and in May 2010 the agency proposed that acceptable levels be lowered from 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt) to 72 ppt. The issue is still under discussion.

The author of the following two examples of redevelopment isn't too concerned, however. As the byproduct of burning older electrical transformer oils and hydraulic oils and industrial processes that aren't common to most contaminated sites, dioxin isn't found in most brownfields.

In 2003, his client — the City of Dallas — mandated that all city construction be green. That led to a green building ordinance for private construction in August 2008. Beginning Oct. 1, public and private projects will be required to be LEED certifiable.

— Stephanie Johnston