Tobin: Turning Brownfields into Community Opportunities

Laura Tobin thrives on finding ways to turn brownfields into opportunities for environmentally responsible urban growth and renewal.

When Laura Tobin looks at a vacant property that was once used for commercial, manufacturing or industrial businesses, she doesn’t see a blighted piece of land – she sees an opportunity for environmentally responsible urban growth and renewal.

“If we can understand the environmental liability associated with a property, and strategize how that liability can be addressed as part of the potential redevelopment, it changes the perceived hurdle into an opportunity,” Tobin said.

Tobin, area manager for the Denver water & environment office of WSP USA, and her team provide services in such areas as due diligence, site investigation, remediation, compliance, and industrial hygiene.

But her greatest interest comes in helping clients with the redevelopment of former commercial properties affected by contamination, commonly known as brownfields. She has worked extensively at sites where soil and groundwater have been adversely affected by a variety of contaminants, including volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, metals, and petroleum hydrocarbons.

“Brownfields redevelopment is about more than just the environmental clean-up,” Tobin said. “It is also about placemaking and economic development. Many contaminated brownfield sites, especially in urban areas, sat idle for decades because the cost of cleaning these sites was very uncertain.”

She said the cost of the clean-up was often greater than the land would be worth after remediation, but tax incentives are making these properties more attractive, and are getting a fresh look.

“These brownfields were often in prime in-fill locations, close to transportation and urban centers,” Tobin said. “Today, redevelopers have a tremendous opportunity to qualify for lucrative tax credits and the financial incentives of a lower purchase price due to environmental liability.”

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©WSP USA

Brownfields incentives provide redevelopers with an opportunity to reclaim land that was often unusable for decades.

Brownfield Experience

Tobin has been involved with brownfield projects that involve numerous businesses, including chemical, automotive, and heavy equipment manufacturing; oil & gas and mining sites; and commercial properties.

Her recent projects for WSP include the brownfields redevelopment of a former manufacturing site in Iowa; assisting with the environmental site characterization and remediation of former manufacturing sites in Texas and Colorado; and serving as WSP’s environmental (hazardous materials) lead for Central 70, a transportation project that will remove an aging viaduct and reconstruct a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 70 between downtown Denver and Denver International Airport.

“By understanding community needs, the owners of these projects are creating taxable income for their communities while repurposing blighted properties that would otherwise remain underutilized or abandoned,” Tobin said. “It’s a positive outcome for everyone.”

While there has been a downturn in the U.S. manufacturing market, Tobin has found that many clients are diversifying their business sectors and are looking to find economical, environmentally responsible ways to maintain their competitive edge by exploring brownfield options.

“A key priority has been, and remains, to be a trusted advisor to our clients and be responsive to their needs,” Tobin said. “WSP is an organization that is always looking ahead, striving to anticipate changing client needs, cultivating innovation and technical expertise, and making cross-sector commitments to our clients.”

Her current goal is to create opportunities for WSP staff to “challenge themselves with interesting projects that benefit from their outstanding expertise.”

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©WSP USA

Laura Tobin has been working with clients on reclaiming brownfields properties like this one in Colorado.

Anticipating Needs

Originally from North Carolina, Tobin earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from the College of Charleston and a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia.

Prior to joining WSP in 1999, Tobin worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Center for Wetlands Research, which gave her a foundation in environmental water resources that she brought to the firm.

Her career at WSP has also allowed for continued project involvement as part of multidisciplinary teams. “Making an influential impact on the environment requires carefully balancing the realities and needs of industry, with environmental regulations and responsible stewardship,” she said.

Tobin thrives on the challenges that come from finding brownfield solutions that will benefit a community.

“No two projects are the same – each individual site has technical and logistic complexities that keep the challenges fresh,” she said.

She is a member of the American Institute of Professional Geologists; Commercial Real Estate Women; the Colorado Association of Commerce & Industry, environmental council; the National Groundwater Association; Colorado Environmental Management Society; the Women’s Energy Network, Colorado chapter; and ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] Committee E50, where she serves on the environmental assessment, risk management and corrective action committees. She will be participating as a community redevelopment advisor at the National Brownfields Conference 2017 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 5-7.

Outside the office, Tobin is an active volunteer for the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation.

“Comfort and joy for a sick child and their families, while in the hospital, can have a positive influence on the outcome,” she said. “A giving spirit makes anything possible.”

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©WSP USA

Laura Tobin (right) reviews plans with her WSP USA colleague Brooke Dillon.

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