Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Redevelopment?

4 minute read

Redevelopment includes all development projects that build new structures and land uses on a previously developed site. Understanding the nuances of redevelopment is critical for understanding the ways cities and communities change.

Brooklyn, New York City

The former location of the Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn has been redeveloped into a mix of open space, residential uses, and office and commercial space. | solepsizm / Shutterstock

The term redevelopment is used to describe any project that constructs new buildings, structures, and land uses on a site with previous or existing uses. Redevelopment projects can vary in significance from demolishing old buildings to replace them with new buildings, constructing new buildings or structures on abandoned or previously demolished sites, or significantly renovating or adding to existing buildings.

A longer term, urban redevelopment, is commonly used to describe redevelopment projects in established central business districts and historic urban cores, and can include projects also described with other important, related terms, such as infill development, adaptive reuse, and brownfield development. In any context, redevelopment occurs in locations where the evolving market, economic, and demographic conditions of the city or community have rendered some of its existing building stock and land uses obsolete, requiring a new scale of development or a new mix of land uses to meet changing demands. The American Planning Association, for example, published a "Policy Issue" in the mid 2000s that explained the need for redevelopment as a response to a new interest in living and working in downtowns. 

Related Terms and Ensuing Confusion

Redevelopment can also be confused with other terms used for similar purposes but with nuances of distinction in meaning. For instance, urban redevelopment also can imply some of the same meaning captured by the term urban revitalization. However, urban revitalization is used more generally to describe changes in the public and private realms throughout a neighborhood, whereas urban redevelopment is properly used only to describe changes specific to a parcel or single development project. 

Urban redevelopment also implies some of the same meanings as the term urban renewal. Urban renewal, however, is more concisely used when describing the historic planning and development programs of the 20th century, which wiped out entire neighborhoods—usually home to low-income and communities of color—to make room for freeways, master planned commercial districts, and other megaprojects, while displacing the existing community, often into public housing projects. 

To be clear, the term urban redevelopment is sometimes used as a politically correct, and public relations-friendly, alternative to the term urban renewal.

Government Programs

Another explanation for the prevalence of the term redevelopment to contemporary planning and development practices is a long history of redevelopment programs led by redevelopment authorities and redevelopment agencies at the local and regional level around the country. Redevelopment authorities historically functioned with large amounts of funding, usually generated from local taxes specifically for redevelopment (e.g., tax increment financing), and specific land use regulations intended to make large-scale changes by gathering parcels and building large commercial and residential developments. Because of the large scale of the projects and programs undertaken by redevelopment authorities, some definitions of the term redevelopment, like this one published by the city and county of San Francisco, only mention the government-led variety of the concept. 

Redevelopment authorities are not as common as they once were, however. Led by former Governor Jerry Brown, the legislature and supreme court of the nation's largest state, California, decided in 2011 to eliminate the state's redevelopment agencies in a controversial decision made to balance the state's budget in the wake of the Great Recession but with enormous consequences for planning and development in the state. 

Redevelopment authorities still exist elsewhere in the country, however, such as throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Some of the most conspicuous government-led redevelopment programs in recent memory include the Pearl District in Portland, Hudson Yards in New York City, and the World Trade Center site in New York City.

Legal Definitions

Given the involvement of both public and private entities in redevelopment, the legal definitions of redevelopment will provide the final word on what constitutes redevelopment and what should be considered greenfield development, renovation, rehabilitation, or some other form of development. For example, the Law Insider dictionary defines redevelopment as follows:

...renovating or rehabilitating such real property at an aggregate anticipated cost of at least 10% of the acquisition cost thereof and such renovation or rehabilitation is expected to disrupt the occupancy of at least 30% of the square footage of such property or (ii) that the Company or its Restricted Subsidiaries intends to renovate or rehabilitate at an aggregate anticipated cost in excess of 10% of the Adjusted Total Assets consisting of or related to such real property immediately prior to such renovation or rehabilitation and such renovation or rehabilitation is expected to temporarily reduce the Consolidated EBITDA attributable to such property by at least 30% as compared to the immediately preceding comparable prior period and (B) with respect to which the Company or its Restricted Subsidiaries thereof have entered into a binding construction contract or construction has commenced and (3) that does not qualify as a “Development Property.”

Finally, some of the importance of the legal definition of redevelopment results from the use of eminent domain, or the power of the government to seize property and repurpose it after compensating the previous property owners, to complete redevelopment projects and programs.

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