News Column

Jennifer Hernandez Helps Developers Transform Contaminated Properties

March 31, 2008

Hildy Medina

Where some see run-down and polluted factories, Jennifer Hernandez sees new homes, commercial developments and neighborhood parks.

Ms. Hernandez is an attorney who specializes in the restoration of brownfields - polluted land where former industrial and commercial buildings once stood. Once shunned as being undesirable, these brownfields are suddenly in demand in California cities and elsewhere, as the search for urban land for development has intensified. Developers are increasingly looking to scoop up old factories, shuttered gas stations, and warehouses and transform them into upscale housing developments, golf courses, or shopping malls.

As a partner and head of the law firm of Holland & Knight's environmental practice in San Francisco, California, Ms. Hernandez is routinely assigned complex and challenging cases.

Often lucrative, brownfield redevelopment comes with its share of headaches. Cleaning up contaminated land is usually costly, and recent federal and state environmental laws have made an already complex process even more challenging. "It could take anywhere from three to five years with no litigation and about 10 years with litigation," says Ms. Hernandez, who guides developers through the legal and bureaucratic maze of brownfield redevelopment.

One of her toughest cases was the shutting down and cleanup of a former Pacific Refining Company site, which was slated to be redeveloped into an upscale housing development in the San Francisco East Bay community of Hercules. Th e oil refinery, built in the 1960s, had been cited with numerous environmental violations. Th e transformation represented a tremendous challenge for everyone involved.

"No one had ever done this kind of development before," she says. "We had to invent new processes." Despite the myriad of issues that had to be resolved, the former oil refinery site was ultimately converted into a 1,200-unit housing development and wetland reserve.

The success of the project helped establish her as a "go-to" lawyer for environmental matters and helped her gain national prominence. She has since been named, by her clients and peers, as one of California's top ten environmental lawyers. For her work on brownfield policies, Mayor Willie Brown proclaimed October 9, 2002 as "'Jennifer Hernandez Day' in San Francisco." Ms. Hernandez, 48, says her interest in brownfields dates back to her childhood. Her Mexican grandfather and father were steelworkers in her hometown of Pittsburg, California.

"I have a strong affinity for the trades," says Ms. Hernandez, whose brother is a master welder. "To me, the right thing to do is improve the environment and protect jobs."

In the mid-1990s, to get a better sense of the business side of brownfield redevelopment deals, Ms. Hernandez and a partner cofounded Landbank Inc., which specialized in buying, cleaning and selling contaminated properties. "At the time, it was very cheap real estate," says Ms. Hernandez, who sold the company in 1998 to a major property developer.

One of the most rewarding, yet grueling, battles of her legal career was helping pass the California Land Environmental Restoration and Reuse Act. Th e law, enacted in 2001, established local agency hazardous cleanup programs that aid in the reclamation and redevelopment of brownfields.

"It was a brutal, brutal fight," recalls Ms. Hernandez, who volunteered her time to help pass the bill. "It split the Democratic party." Asked what advice she would offer young Hispanic women starting out in their law career, she says: "Find your voice. People underestimate the importance of a clear and direct speaking style."

Source: (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

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