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Turning huge vacant lots into stormwater areas and neighborhood centerpieces

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/06/11 @ 1:34pm

As the historic and devastating floods sweeping across the Midwest have made plain, business as usual controlling stormwater is being challenged as never before. The legacy of poor land-use decisions coupled with climate change has produced fewer places for natural filtration on top of unprecedented rains. The result is overwhelming sewers, swelling rivers, and leading to emergency decisions to blow up levees in order to save whole towns.

Some regions-including Northeast Ohio-are looking to adopt new strategies that include remaking landscapes with a higher function, to absorb more rain where it falls. This is called green infrastructure (GI). While in its infancy, it is only expected to grow as '500 year events' appear now every five years. Leading the effort here is the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. Working with Cleveland and a handful of NGOs focused on vacant land reuse, a regional response to slowing stormwater is taking shape.

"People have to agree that rolling out this 'green carpet' on the city is a good idea," Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells said, describing her work leading the district's green infrastructure and stormwater program.

"It's an issue of scale. What you're doing with your property has a minor impact on (billions of gallons of raw sewage dumping into rivers and lakes from combined sewer overflow)."

That said, The Sewer District launched a grant program for small-scale demonstration projects (up to $10,000). And, with Cleveland, they're conducting a feasibility study that will identify the big opportunities (which are the best positioned of the city's 6,000 vacant lots) to plant said green infrastructure.

The first small projects are in the works (the District would like to fund five). They include a stormwater garden on a vacant lot on Ashurst Road in University Heights; a stream bank improvement behind some homes on Milligan Avenue in Cleveland, and the area near the Chevy Branch of the Big Creek, soils were improved on a vacant lot to promote infiltration and a infiltration trench retains and slows some of the on-site water.

Since installation, the District reports, next-door neighbor has said that they have not experienced basement flooding.

"It's really nice if they're solving a problem like a wet lot. But what we're demonstrating what individual properties can do."

"The driving factor for us is (soil) hydrology and trying to align that with vacancy as much as we can."

They also like multiple benefits-urban wetlands, such as Saylor Grove in Philadelphia, or daylit streams, like the proposed Lick Run in Cincinnati, that are functional and a centerpiece for a neighborhood park or new development. Irrigation ponds for inner-city farms- like the six-acre Kinsman Farm breaking ground this summer on Cleveland's east side ? are also under consideration, she added.

Committing $42 million to an estimated 8-10 large-scale green infrastructure projects in the 81 square miles, the majority of which is in the city of Cleveland (with a small sliver in Shaker Heights), is a step toward proving the efficacy of re-engineering the earth to be more sponge-like. A federal consent decree calls for removing 44 million gallons of combined sewer overflow (CSO) is in addition to the 4.5 billion gallons to 494 million gallons annual reduction of raw sewage going into the lake ($3 billion in big underground storage pipes will be built over the next 25 years).

"We're identifying areas in the city that have remaining overflow volume (after CSO work), available land, partnerships, good soils, high impervious surface and something we can affect," Dreyfuss-Wells explained. "We put that into a green infrastructure index, and that's popping up catchments that are about 200-acre areas that have best opportunity to do a green infrastructure project."

Informing the conversation is the ReImagine Cleveland Committee, newly formed to steward its 2007 vacant land reuse plan into action. The city is the key player, Dreyfuss-Wells said. In some cases, they're donating land and lining up potential partners in catchments areas like Kingsbury Run, Walworth Run and Doan Brook: The top three priority catchments from ReImagine.

The feasibility study, due in December, will pinpoint where vacant land aligns with city and Sewer District goals. For example, Opportunity Corridor and some of the large swaths of vacant land around Kinsman Avenue have been mentioned, repeatedly, as a priority target area. More specifically, recent speculation has surfaced around a large-scale project around Orlando Bakery (the company is reportedly interested in on-site stormwater management for its plant expansion) and the nearby OSU Ext. incubator farm and Cleveland Growing Power urban farm in Kinsman. Many eyes are on this area long ago branded the Forgotten Triangle for building up functional green infrastructure services.

"Orlando (Bakery) may depend on what they're willing to do and how much we can manage. We're figuring out, could there be a deal where they pay for the maintenance and we can do infrastructure.

"The Sewer District can identify these large catchments, but it's up to our partners to ID where these projects go. We have to look at how to get water there (to large GI sites). If you have to rebuild streets and put sanitary lines in, that's more expensive than if you can redirect it by controlling the water that 'sheets' off pavement."

In addition to the $42 million generated from rate increases which, once again, grew out of the federally mandated CSO overhaul, the District will introduce its stormwater program. With a legal challenge from 12 cities recently dismissed by a judge, they will move ahead with plans, which include mapping out better erosion and flooding control through green infrastructure (these projects will be paid for by property assessments tied to the size of your lot's impervious surface). It expects to start collecting fees in 2012.

"There's no Mother Theresa here. Sewer districts are realizing they cannot afford (the status quo). New York City, if they had to build (pipes) like ours, they couldn't afford it. You cannot spend public money unless there's a public good."

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