Redeveloping Closed Auto Dealerships

With support from the Citi Foundation, Sustainable Long Island conducted a study (2011) looking at the challenges and opportunities for redeveloping corridors of closed or vacant car dealerships in low-to-moderate-income communities across Long Island to set the stage for, or spur, future redevelopment.

This useful tool, one of the first of its kind, can be utilized by potential developers looking to revitalize a specific site and area, but wanting to say within the vision of the surrounding community residents. It can also be used at similar sites, not yet identified, as a blueprint and guideline to redevelopment for closed or vacant car dealership in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

Long Island is home to a number of corridors of car dealerships. Often these sites are very visible – on major corridors and in the entry-ways to communities, and when left vacant, they take away from the neighborhood; adding to blight. They’re also frequently located in low-to-moderate-income (LMI) communities. When it comes to redevelopment, they may be hindered by lengthy entitlement processes, perceived contamination, and environmental review processes. Yet, despite these complications, former car dealerships and other such properties hold promise.

Affected communities looking to spark revitalization by adaptively reusing such properties are faced with numerous environmental regulatory and land use challenges, including handling state mandated regulatory controls for disposing of hazardous wastes as well as, zoning, lot configuration, land assembly, and determining property ownership. At a time where many local governments are reducing staff and slashing already strained budgets, the challenges with redeveloping these sites are complex.

Having identified specific sites in the Village of Hempstead, Inwood, Patchogue and Riverside, Sustainable Long Island conducted a scan of regulatory barriers to redevelopment; hired an environmental consultant to conduct site investigations and help identify preliminary environmental challenges; examined agencies needed and possible funding for redevelopment; and engaged local stakeholders to understand community priorities for possible future redevelopment of these sites.

Methodology

For this project Sustainable Long Island identified four LMI communities – the Village of Hempstead, Inwood, East and North Patchogue, and Riverside – containing clusters or corridors of auto dealerships. Within these four communities we identified 10 sites that were once home to car dealerships, including some that had already found new uses or were in the process of being redeveloped.

We set out to understand some of the regulatory hurdles in redeveloping these properties and to identify preliminary environmental challenges, government agencies that should be involved, and to identify community priorities. Our consultant, Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, visited each site and looked at current as well as historical uses, and assessed some of the likely environmental challenges. They used historic aerial images, Sanborn maps, reviewed local plans and county databases, scanned environmental databases, and conducted inventories of each site. Staff conducted research on various local, state, and federal regulations that control or affect redevelopment of car dealerships, ranging from land use and zoning, regulation of underground storage tanks, hazardous waste storage, and more.

Sustainable Long Island worked with a group of students from the Pratt Institute Programs for Sustainable Planning and Development to conduct initial research on community demographics and context, remediation issues, case studies, and potential steps for redevelopment. We also conducted workshops inviting participants from the selected communities to participate so that we could get their insight into current needs and priorities for reusing these types of properties.

Findings

  • Zoning is locally controlled and through our research we’ve found that local governments have a number of different ways of accommodating car dealerships – some are zoned for general business, while others are included in light industrial uses, and still some have special designations for auto sales and service. Research shows that because car sales generate significant sales tax revenue, many local governments may be reluctant to rezone car dealerships and are willing to hold out for new dealerships to re-occupy these properties.
  • Overlapping government – Layers of local government in a home-rule state make the redevelopment process difficult to navigate. Many potential developers prefer more predictability and consistent processes.
  • On Long Island, Nassau & Suffolk counties handle underground storage tanks differently. Whereas in Suffolk County they’re regulated by the Department of Health Services, in Nassau County the Department of Health requires permits for storage of some toxic and hazardous materials, but highly flammable chemicals and fuel for internal combustion engines fall under the jurisdiction of the Fire Marshall.
  • Environmental issues – Most car dealerships also include auto service facilities and therefore are likely to have on-site storage tanks for waste oil, petroleum, etc.
  • Funding is important – Potential developers may be put off by the cost of possible clean-up that may be required, but there are numerous programs that can assist – from New York’s Brownfield Cleanup Program to revolving loans and grant programs at the EPA. In 2012 the EPA initiated the Multi-Purpose Pilot Grant Program, offering grants to eligible entities for both assessment and cleanup work at a specific brownfield site owned by the applicant.
  • While posing challenges, often former car dealership sites are situated in visible locations offering redevelopers unique opportunities to showcase their properties or to take advantage of existing assets. On Long Island there are a few former dealerships that are in the process or have already been transformed – 1 into market-rate apartments and condos (former Ford site – Hempstead) while another became a charter school. In another example, the local Town felt a particular site wasn’t a good location for a commercial property as it is adjacent to the headwaters of a River and just south of a lake, so they purchased it as open space and are planning to convert it into a passive park.

Recommendations

  • While sites such as vacant or closed auto dealerships are often sources of blight, they present tremendous opportunities to think creatively about how to transform a property – or for adaptive reuse. When redeveloped they can provide economic development by creating jobs, expanding tax revenue (or putting properties back on the tax role), stabilize or revitalize neighborhoods, improve the look and feel of an area or street, and may become community assets.
  • Redevelopment of car dealerships should complement existing or previous plans, follow local visions for an area, and ultimately meet community needs. It isn’t enough just to redevelop for the sake of redevelopment – there is value in a planning process that is community-based and takes into account local needs and assets.
  • Community engagement is the key to long-term success. Consistent authentic participation by community members is critical to the success of a reuse that the project meet the needs of the community and the best way to make that determination is by engaging the community.
  • In conducting stakeholder surveys and community workshops, SLI learned that the most important priorities for community members are that redevelopment of closed or former car dealerships (and other such commercial property) is done with consideration for local context and community needs, taking into account existing community plans/vision plans/comprehensive plans, as well as feasibility based on market analyses. While each community has different priorities, the most common suggested future uses in the four LMI communities we studied were housing; commercial uses, such as medical/health service, space for start-up businesses,retail, and entertainment facilities; mixed use – housing & commercial/retail; recreation/open space; community facilities; and schools
  • Communities looking to redevelop closed auto dealerships should first try to understand historic and current uses of the site, as well as understand any contamination or remedial action that has taken place on the site. The New York State DEC’s environmental database and the EPA’s RCRAInfo Search are good places to begin this search and submitting Freedom of Information Law requests to local departments of health may also provide background information. It is also important to understand the local jurisdictions and regulations that apply to a particular site: knowing which municipality a site lies in; which entities regulate land use and hazardous waste; and whether there are any current plans for the area (vision plans, comprehensive plans, etc.) that may impact potential future uses of the property. If a site is known to have house auto service and repair, it is recommended to conduct Phase I Site Assessments to determine the extent of any potential contamination that may have occurred. Another important component is to consider which parties can help facilitate redevelopment and whether there are funding opportunities available to help with redevelopment. In the case of the four LMI communities studied for this project, in general the needed agencies and entities include local government, current owners of the property (if applicable, for example if privately owned), and community organizations who can help guide redevelopment to ensure it meets local needs. As for programs and funding that can facilitate cleanup and redevelopment, New York State offers a number of programs including the Brownfield Cleanup and Voluntary Cleanup programs, and opportunities may also exist through the federal government, such as through the US EPA.