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ReImagine Cleveland projects: Connect the dots

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/13/11 @ 1:30pm

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As ReImagine a Greater Cleveland pivots from a broad vision for Cleveland's expanding portfolio of vacant land to site-specific plans, the players behind the ambitious initiative are working to match both policy reform and new uses with a small set of entrepreneurs who want access to some of the city's thousands of vacant parcels-even if they are for temporary uses.

The ReImagining conversation between design and sustainability NGOs and the Jackson Administration has already led to some important shifts in policy, and attitude. It started with the city's land bank program. The creation of a Landbank Disposition Committee is expediting applications, but also applying more impetus to vacant land as a driver of better economic, social and environmental outcomes not so easily seen from the old perspective that bricks and mortar are always of the highest order. If a resident wants land, say for a side-yard expansion, the committee ensures that they meet new guidelines for beautification as described in the ReImagine Resources Guide.

"Less is more," explains Cleveland Senior Planner Freddy Collier. "Keeping it simple but elegant is the idea for the basic recommendation, which is typically some type of buffer on the front of the parcel, be it shrubbery or (an earthen) mound or decorative (wood) fencing, planting some trees, and making sure the lawn is maintained."

The city also updated the policy controlling how long land bank property can be used for 'green' treatments like agriculture and rain gardens-moving it from one to five years.

Does that come with a higher expectation? Will the treatments from the Pattern Book eventually become requirements?

The city can say 'no', Collier says, if people are not amenable to the new expectations and if standards are not met. "We may have required sources and uses. It is a requirement to have a schematic (drawing). You have to work with people, but residents also have to be willing to step up and take on additional property and do it in a way that helps the city."

Cleveland was willing to aid the vacant land reuse efforts of private citizens-it became one of the only cities in the nation to use a portion ($500,000) of its $24 million Neighborhood Stabilization Fund for 56 pilot projects, including the street edge improvements that Collier describes, but also community gardens, neighborhood pathways and small parks led by individuals. The city is looking into the next two rounds of NSP funds for more reuse projects, even though federal guidelines limit it to housing.

"The city does see vacant land and housing as not mutually exclusive. We have to be savvy and industrious in a way to support and to help subsidize some of this."

Meanwhile, the city will soon release its "Eight ideas of sustainability"-recommendations that come from last year's stakeholder meetings led by the Planning Department and its consultant, landscape designer Sonia Jakse, which identified priority parcels for vacant land for alternative energy generation, agriculture and stormwater management. Planning will produce a "how to" guide for citizens or entrepreneurs who have an idea for vacant land but don't know how to navigate the various departments at City Hall. Collier and his counterpart leading the ReImagine effort at the Department of Community Development, James Downing, are producing internal documents to "bring performance management on how to move this agenda" from demolition to disposition and designing a better use.

On the latter, the city is working the NGOs who led the ReImagine effort – Neighborhood Progress, Inc., Parkworks and the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. They plan to hire designers for three 'catalytic' projects (with an $85,000 commitment from the Cleveland Foundation to fund plans) and to tie into other big efforts such as the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District's green infrastructure projects, which will pay for treatments on land to slow stormwater runoff in Kingsbury Run, Doan Brook and Walworth Run catchments.

"Dollars that are available for this will go for master plans that will articulate how these initiatives will weave together," Collier said. "In the Central neighborhood, which actually grew in population, Tri-C is working on (building personal capital). There's a (Combined Sewer Overflow) next to Orlando Bakery and they're going to look at onsite stormwater management with their expansion. They've bought in to BMPs and the Sewer District can help them fund the design of that. The city is pursuing Opportunity Corridor. It would be beneficial to think about the roadway and Kingsbury Run as a system.

There's the Central Co-op-Mr. Kidd's organization is a great example of someone who understands the people in the neighborhood and is connecting the dots between job readiness and urban agriculture. Same with the Rid-all folks (at the Kinsman Farm) who not only have the desire, but the capacity…"

The ReImagine catalytic projects, then, seek to answer, how can you begin to weave in new ideas in urban agriculture with the physical investments?

"We want to create economic opportunity that teaches marketable skills and yields choices to people when it comes to healthy eating and improving environmental conditions. Could we have a green grocer on Kinsman (next to the Rid-All/Growing Power and OSU Extension 6-acre urban incubator farms)? So, the triple bottom line could really be met here."

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