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ReImagine a more sustainable Greater Cleveland plan begins to take shape

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/03/10 @ 10:00pm

As foreclosures spread like a cancer from Cleveland to the suburbs, the ReImagine a Greater Cleveland project is offering a surgical first strike that aims to put vacant properties back into productive use. The city, and perhaps soon, the county, will guide their efforts by the 'ReImagine' study, using the planning work of non-profit groups Neighborhood Progress, Inc. (NPI) and Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) as a springboard for recommending the most productive short- and long-term reuse alternatives.

The ReImagine steering committee was briefed last week about their eight working groups, which have begun to identify priorities and locations for 'signature' projects that will "transform the growing liability of vacant land into a regional asset…that incorporate multiple, interlinked ideas."

The work groups-consisting of planners and experts on topics for reuse such as Alternative Energy, Urban Agriculture and Stormwater Management-shared criteria for reuse, overlaid them with actual plots of vacant land and started identifying sites that are ripe for more detailed plans.

"There are patterns of vacancy within the city," said CUDC interim director, Terry Schwarz. "The East Side, where there's a lot of vacant land, you begin to see large-sized clusters which may be used for large-scale projects."

Foreclosure is spreading outward (pictured right–click on image to enlarge), adds Schwarz, and that could lead to more vacant land in the suburbs.

"As vacancy trends grow, we can track it. The region needs to have a shared set of indicators-vacant land, vacant buildings, a small group of criteria-to have all communities document the same way. Then, we'll have a common understanding of the problem."

Suburbs might start adopting practices such as Cleveland's periodic survey of distressed housing and recent demolitions. In Cleveland vacancy is growing-to 7.5 percent of its total land or 3,500 acres. Add in Cuyahoga County, and the total today stands at 8.8 percent. Answering the crisis will take iconic projects, said GreenCityBlueLake Director David Beach, that provide evidence of Cleveland's ability to shake off the Rust Belt image.

It will also take growing a green economy. The ReImagine pilot projects are breaking ground this spring, with the city investing $500,000 of HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program I funds into 56 urban agriculture and green space projects led in large part by Cleveland residents. Many are fairly conventional beautification and gardening schemes, but a handful could provide local solutions that diffuse blight and address concentrations of poverty.

The goal of the ReImagine 2.0 project is to figure out where are the highest priority places for stabilization. The steering committee is figuring out where 'catalytic' projects can be sited, how to build capacity, solidify agreements with partners that hold sway over vacant land disposition (Cuyahoga County Land Bank) and with green programs (the Sewer District's stormwater agency) and identify key policies that need to be reformed at the city.

"How do you bring the notion of correcting vacant land to scale?" said Cleveland City Planner Freddie Collier. "One of the benchmarks we used was Philadelphia's Vacant Land Stabilization Program, it's an institutionalized way of dealing with it where you start to see neighborhood-level stormwater interventions."

(In some cases, reimagining may be less important than adopting working models of vacant land reuse – can we attract the same type of entrepreneurs who started a large-scale urban farm in Detroit, for example, or sow together hundreds of kids planting sunflowers for biofuels on city lots like they are Pittsburgh?)

What are the criteria emerging for Cleveland's ReImagine 'catalytic' projects?

The ReImagine 2.0 Urban Agriculture work group, for instance, started with The Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Coalition and Cuyahoga County's criteria for where is land optimal for food production. It is based largely on soil type, tree canopy and proximity to other urban agriculture and garden sites.

"We then looked at neighborhood and site specific mapping criteria," said Kim Scott, Cleveland City Planning and chair of the urban ag group which consists of planners and urban farmers. The settled on the following criteria (pictured right-click to enlarge) that they then used to filter available vacant properties for catalytic urban agriculture sites:

  • Building shadow and tree cover
  • Size (a quarter-acre or greater)
  • Slope (not to exceed 5 percent)
  • Contamination indicators
  • Riparian zones
  • Land bank hold areas and development areas.

"When you put in for all of those indicators, we came up with seven sites that are ideal for (a catalytic) urban agriculture projects," Scott said. In addition, the group identified about 250 smaller sites that are ideal for urban agriculture (pictured left-click to enlarge image).

Another work group mapped environmental preferences and underlying characteristics of the land (pictured right), such as soil conditions, to inform preferences for ecological restoration. "From a management perspective if we're looking at using vacant land to restore ecological function, you might prioritize vacant land in proximity to park systems, so they can be managed," Schwarz suggested.

"We also did the flip side of environmental practices, looking at social aspects such as where people don't have access to green space," added Sonia Jakse, the city's ReImagine landscape design consultant. "We're looking at the balance between where we can restore ecosystem function based on what was there and what makes sense to serve our population. So, if there aren't any parks around areas (with natural cover and tree canopy, connectivity to bike/ped routes, historic natural areas) we'll prioritize other places for restoration."

Schwarz also presented the ReImagine 2.0 ideas to the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Vacant Land Group last week. The 2019 group-consisting of urban farmers, community development veterans and environmentalists-had some interesting feedback.

Veronica Walton of NEO Restoration Alliance asked, "What does ecologically balanced look like to people living in the neighborhoods, and do we need more than maps; do we need evocative images?

2019 Advanced Energy group chair Linda Sekura asked, "Can we look at vacant land as an opportunity for restoring a whole neighborhood, backyard by backyard? To have a good mature canopy you need more than a vacant piece of land here and there. You might think about linking backyards."

That is the goal of ReImagine 2.0, Schwarz said, showing the group the image at right (click to enlarge)-of a neighborhood scale restoration creating what she calls 'green fibers' that wind their way, block by block, through the city to the lake.

Looking at the map of vacant land opportunity clusters below (click to enlarge), it's possible to (re)imagine the first green fiber being formed in Cleveland's east side where a strategy could link the hundreds of vacant lots in Fairfax and Glenville into a corridor.

"The big picture links you to the lake and shows you that we're part of an ecosystem," agreed EarthDay Coalition co-director Chris Trepal, "but when we go to explain this at the neighborhood outreach meetings, we'll have to take a giant step back. You might want to consider a visual preferences exercise. Our experience with our Naturehood project (rescuing native plants from around the region, and placing them on vacant lots in the city) is a lot of people don't even know what a prairie looks like. I would start by having a serious conversation about what we like."

Marlane Weslian at Slavic Village Development, a nonprofit community group assisting with seven ReImagine pilot projects, added, "We say to people, 'it may take 10 to 20 years before you see houses again'. In the meantime, I tell them we're going to heal the land and explain that these are the strategies now that there are may be only 2 houses left on your block.

"We have a trail (Morgana Run) that goes through our community," she added, "we're planning for how that can be more of a wildlife corridor rather than just an asphalt trail."

Ultimately, the vision is for a healthier, happier Cleveland with green corridors that make the neighborhoods great places to live, work and play-to swim, to fish in clean water, to grow food where you live. So the ReImagine 2.0 process could recommend a policy that culverted streams are sensitive and shouldn't be developed on, Schwarz said.

ReImagine 2.0 will have a series of public meetings this summer. The 2019 Vacant Land Group is participating as ambassadors, and in planning the sessions. Dr. Mark Chupp at Case is leading the effort with Neighborhood Progress, Inc. and the Urban Design Center.

"The purpose of the outreach is to inform the public that the city is taking an aggressive approach and is being recognized nationally as a main player in vacant land reuse," Chupp said. "If you can change the way people think, action and priorities will follow."

To see more images from the ReImagine a Greater Cleveland project, click here.

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