Research Magazine 2006

Kenneth Tramm: He wrote the book on bio-redevelopment

Where others see an out-of-service service station or a dried-up dry cleaner, Kenneth Tramm sees an art museum, new hospital wing, perhaps even a sports arena. He sees a full-fledged real-estate revival and a resource.

Kenneth Tramm

Alumnus Kenneth Tramm specializes in revitalizing brownfields.

But he also sees potential environmental problems, like chemicals left in the ground that make such properties unappealing to developers. So, Tramm (’03 M.S., ’05 Ph.D.) is changing an industry—in some cases a city’s future—by giving it an interdisciplinary spin.

“I believe that if developers have good information, they’ll make good decisions,” he said.  And it’s Dr.  Tramm who gives them that good, complete information and gets the ball to that arena rolling.

As a program manager in Shaw Environmental’s Irving office, he manages bio-redevelopment projects for cities and industries. He specializes in risk assessment and corrective action, which means he must understand potential legal issues, redevelopment goals, environmental justice issues and economic planning principles.

Vacated properties that aren’t redeveloped because of environmental complications are called brownfields. Old factories, gas stations, gun ranges or any other businesses that used chemicals aren’t always maintained after the business leaves, and developers are reluctant to move in and fix someone else’s problem on their dime.

“The real impact is that a municipality has invested in the infrastructure, but it just sits there,” Tramm said.

Brownfields can hold environmental risks. But transforming them means that developers don’t need to find new places to build by eliminating green spaces, and communities can see multiple levels of revitalization. For example, the American Airlines Center and Victory Plaza in downtown Dallas sit on an old power plant, and Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth had numerous fuel tanks under it.

Because brownfield properties can be complex, redeveloping them requires varied expertise, from science to history to law to urban planning.  A consultant who could effectively offer these services, Tramm figured, needed an interdisciplinary education. He found that in UT Arlington’s Environmental Science and Engineering Program (now Environmental and Earth Sciences), which he called “a beautiful program for students hoping to shape their skill set for the modern environmental industry.” He now serves on its advisory committee, where he mentors graduate students.

“He’s one of the best examples of a graduate of the program,” said biology Professor James Grover, who coordinates the EES program. “He has been a leader within the profession. He’s got a unique ability to be very thorough but very concise at telling people about it.”

Tramm recently was honored as a 2007 Texas Environmental Excellence Award finalist by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized his “innovative techniques” on how to sift through volumes of environmental data and glean usable information.

He also wrote the book, literally, on how to perform environmental assessment work. His Environmental Due Diligence: A Professional Handbook is the only complete work on how the assessment, investigation and risk-based decision processes mesh.

“As this new field has matured, there has been little information at the academic level,” he said. “I collected it all in one place. It has proven to be a great resource for many of the attorneys, developers and even regulators I deal with.”

More than that, he has sold a lot of books. So many, in fact, that Environmental Due Diligence made The Boston Globe’s nonfiction best-seller list alongside books by Barack Obama and Al Gore.

Tramm believes that as environmental due diligence becomes more interdisciplinary—that is, as the industry follows his lead—the benefits will be dramatic. And he wants his alma mater to continue to lead the way. He, civil and environmental engineering Associate Professor Ernest Crosby, School of Urban and Public Affairs Professor Sherman Wyman and EPA officials including Regional Director Richard Greene (a former Arlington mayor) are working to bring a brownfield redevelopment center and advisory group to UT Arlington.

Meantime, Tramm manages private projects related to Dallas’ growing Design District and to the Trinity River corridor in Dallas and Tarrant counties.

“This is such a great profession,” he said. “And we need all types of people working in this industry—scientists, geologists, engineers, planners. If you want to work hard and make a difference, then there’s a place for you.”

And it just might be an old gas station.

— Danny Woodward