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Report from Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference: opening day

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/18/10 @ 2:40pm

One thousand people assembled in Cleveland last week to share how metropolitan areas are attempting to turn their vacant land problems into an economic revitalization strategy. Cleveland was the host site because of the devastating impact of the foreclosure crisis, and because, in the words of author Alex Kotlowitz, we're "pushing back."

In a way, the conference was a recognition of years of urban redevelopment efforts in Cleveland, from its strength in community development corporations to NGOs like Neighborhood Progress, Inc. who formed a vacant land reuse response team with organizers working in the trenches to data analysis from Case's NEO CANDO and a multi-party ReImagine study which has morphed into a city-led strategy.

(Before the first session, I spoke to Cleveland Planner Freddie Collier about the ReImagine report, scheduled for release next month. The report will detail where and how the city will focus on catalyzing economic development through vacant land reuse. Collier hopes that all of the ReImagine catalytic projects-at least a dozen ranging from a stormwater wetland park in Slavic Village to a large urban farm in the Forgotten Triangle to the city facilitating guerilla gardening-will ultimately get funded by a combination of local foundations and public sources like federal Community Development Block Grants or Neighborhood Stabilization funds, the latter is tied to housing although can be used to demolish abandoned properties to make way for a green space system).

The "ReImagining America's Older Cities" session provided a snapshot of the grassroots efforts taking hold primarily in the Rust Belt. Youngstown is concentrating its efforts on its Idora neighborhood where a CDC and the city are methodically converting 150 abandoned lots into food and native plant gardens-the centerpiece will be a six-acre urban farm that can serve 150 families. "We're taking abandoned and feral homes and turning them into green spaces with native plants," said Presley Gillespie of Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. The Wean Foundation and public sources are starting to come in for their vision of "cities that are stronger but smaller."

"We don't have to feel inferior for being smaller. We're partnering with the city to be leaner, to mobilize capital for neighborhoods that are savable."

John Gower at the city of Dayton says Rust Belt cities should be proud of their efforts.

"I think this is the great adventure of the 21st century; it's not on the coasts. The industrial belt of the Great Lakes region has the opportunity to redefine itself."

Dayton's ReImagine effort, including its Phoenix Project, is a ten-year process to complete the city's 1911 Olmsted Plan. They're mapping where vacant properties, many former industrial sites, can be remediated and linked to form a green network. They hope to shape the state's Big Tobacco settlement investment in school rebuilding.

In Toledo, their botanical garden is pivoting from a staid herb society to community and local food hub. Like Cleveland Botanical Garden and its Green Corps, the old line institutions provide the foundation for the new vacant land reuse efforts taking root. Toledo GROWS is a program of the garden that is experimenting with raising 2,500 tilapia in an aquaculture system. They also devised a vertical grow system for seniors that rise above concrete or contaminated lots, and they partnered with an urban church to build a greenhouse that offers employment to at-risk youth.

"The Greenhouse Project is a (Department of Justice) Weed and Seed project," explained Toledo GROWS Michael Szuberla. "We argued to DOJ that gardening is a crime prevention program."

State smart growth organization Greater Ohio director Lavea Brachman identified policy reforms that will enable vacant land reuse to scale up. She credits Governor Strickland's Administration for moving ahead with its Hubs of Innovation program, which gives priority for Job Ready Site funds that tie university-city initiatives (it lead to Midtown Cleveland recently winning a $3 million grant for the Midtown Tech Center).

Brachman's comment that absent a comprehensive state plan for urban redevelopment, we'll continue to "tinker around the edges" was telling of the context of the problem facing metropolitan areas in states like Ohio. Then there's the "political reality of focusing on certain neighborhoods" in Cleveland, Planning Director Bob Brown said, where a council ward system prevents the city from picking winners and losers. That said, NGOs like NPI recognized that's a trend and began moving toward concentrating its funding on savable neighborhoods with its Strategic Investment Initiative and Opportunity Homes on model blocks. Stephen Bancroft at Detroit's Foreclosure Prevention Office says its time to broach unpopular topics, including "land swaps" or negotiating to move a few hold out homeowners from areas of the city where nature is starting to take back.

"We found when we're ready to take flak from residents on clearing out an area and often the response is 'how can we make it happen as long as you treat us well,'" said Brown. "We're not going to achieve the ideal pattern of densified neighborhoods with pristine green spaces. We have to go where the market is telling us to go, add open space amenities where they should already be with our limited resources."

Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative Director Terry Schwarz challenged that 'managing the decline' way of thinking, countering that "it's a false dichotomy that where buildings don't go, you aren't getting city services. We can target places where traditionally real estate services make sense and we can target resources for green spaces which provide ecological services."

* * *

The conference kicked off with tours of Cleveland's vacant land reuse efforts, which earned attention for creating a common language and roadmap most notably in its ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland report. Neighborhoods like Hough, which has struggled with chronic poverty since it burned during the riots of the 1960s, are experimenting with the help of a suite of urban agriculture ordinances that allow chicken coops and beehives in backyards and farming as a primary use, including farm stands, in residential areas. It's a shot in the arm for Mansfield Fraser, proprietor of the vineyard at Chateaux Hough, for CityGrowers who rented a plot at Stanard Farm, on the site of a defunct school demolished and converted into a 2-acre urban farm, and for Tim Smith who is chasing his dream of a commercial greenhouse on an empty parking lot of a church. Urban agriculture has implications for those trapped in food desserts and young college grads looking to start a business alike.

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