From the Center for Community Progress:

REGISTRATION IS OPEN FOR OCTOBER’S RECLAIMING VACANT PROPERTIES CONFERENCE IN CLEVELAND!

Community Progress is pleased this year to partner with Neighborhood Progress, Inc. to bring you Reclaiming Vacant Properties: the Intersection of Sustainability, Revitalization, and Policy Reform. Join with us, and hundreds of your peers from communities across the country, to learn about the policies, tools, and strategies to catalyze long-term, sustainable revitalization. Share your experiences and insights, and become a part of the only national network focused on building the knowledge, leadership, and momentum to reclaim vacant and abandoned properties to foster thriving neighborhoods.

This engaging conference offers you three days of opportunities to build the skills and relationships to transform your communities:

  • Pre-conference training seminars on key strategies, including land banking, re-imagining older industrial cities, data and research, selling houses in weak markets, and taking nuisance abatement to scale.
  • Mobile workshops showcasing some of Cleveland’s successes, including adaptive reuse, community visioning, and legal tools in Slavic Village, historic preservation and brownfield revitalization in Detroit Shoreway, urban agriculture and green building throughout the city, and transit oriented development along the Euclid Corridor.
  • 35 interactive breakout sessions covering the full range of issues related to revitalization, including assessing tax incentives, accessing REOs and other foreclosure innovations, state and federal policy, temporary uses on vacant land, creative financing, decision making for site reuse, municipal code enforcement, and much more.
  • Plenaries highlighting innovative leadership and a keynote by Alex Kotlowitz (award-winning journalist and best-selling author.)
  • Networking opportunities allowing you time to exchange ideas with and get to know peers.
  • A new Poster Session designed so you can talk directly with even more experts.

We look forward to seeing you in October for this unique conference! Visit the conference web site to download the program and register.

A few additional notes about the conference:

  • One more opportunity to present: There is still an opportunity to participate as a presenter through the Poster Session. The Poster Session will offer conference participants one more way to hear about interesting case studies, research efforts, or projects. Proposals are due July 15th so don’t delay. If you already submitted an idea for a poster through the program RFP, you do not need to resubmit. Visit the program page on the web site to find out the details.
  • Scholarships: We hope to be able to post the application for registration scholarships soon. A limited number of scholarships will be available to nonprofit, public sector, or grassroots individuals. Watch for an update soon.

After a spate of news about Detroit, this edition of the news round-up focuses on three other cities: Cleveland, Rochester and Buffalo:

Cleveland Tops Census’ Shrinking List; Local Columnist Says City is Stabilizing
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released population estimates for 2009, showing Cleveland with the largest numerical decline of residents last year – followed by two Michigan cities, Detroit and Flint. According to the Census’ estimate, Cleveland lost 2,658 residents, or nearly 1 percent. But a local columnist at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer points out that the decline is actually about 0.6 percent, indicating that the city’s population may finally be stabilizing.

In New York, Rochester Embraces Downsizing, Buffalo Still Reluctant
Rochester has joined the ranks of fellow shrinking city Detroit, and embraced downsizing. The city has acknowledged its dramatic loss of population, and is now to committed to “consciously and intelligently shrink.” Over the next 20 years, the city will relocate residents to eliminate at least 40 residential blocks, and convert the land into parks, greenways, gardens, and farms. Buffalo – another shrinking city about 70 miles away – is still reluctant to embrace the notion of downsizing.

Please check out Al Letson’s State of the Re:Union (SO TRU) from NPR, with two first person reports on Shrinking Cities: Motor City Rebound and Milwaukee: City of Vision.  Also, check out the inaugural episode of this program, focusing on DC and neighborhoods such as Shaw and H Street.  About State of the Re:Union:

“For every episode of State of the Re:UNION, we travel to a different American city or town and ask the questions; What makes Community? Who are the people that help bring it together? What issues do they face..?”

Some of you may remember the movie “Jerry McGuire.”  In it, Tom Cruise plays a sports agent sickened by the exploitation of his clients.  He has a crisis of concience, which leads him to write a memo, which morphs into a book on reshaping a more eithical sports management profession, “The Things We Think But Do Not Say.”  It’s core elements are: fewer clients, less money, more personal contact.

The day after printing this document and circulating it at an industry convention, Jerry realizes he’s sabotaged his career and desperately tries to get every copy back.  He’s not successful; as he walks through the lobby of the convention hotel, expecting a stoning, he instead recieves a standing ovation.  Jerry– and the audience — think that people have understood the rightness of his cause.

Then the camera focuses in on two of his co-workers as they applaud him.  “How long before they fire him?” one asks.  “I’ll give him ’til the end of the week” says the other, which turns out to be about right.

In the article “The Suburban Exodus: Are We There Yet?” New Geography writer Wendell Cox makes a compelling case that, despite the message from the design and planning professions that Americans are in the midst of abandoning the suburbs for dense urban neighborhoods, what the preference for — and numbers of — detached housing is actually rising.  Cox sites as a major element of his arguement the failure of condo conversions in multiple urban areas around the country.

In the commentary on this June 4, 2010 article, commentor epar states that Cox’s  conclusions are wrong because he is conflating the failure of the condo market with people’s desires for the urban lifestyle.

Maybe epar is missing the point.  It seems that the credit bubble, as the shrinking cities studio saw in Cleveland, would affect properties in all classes equally.  Homes, condos, etc. would go begging and the effects would be more determined by the credit profiles of a community than their planning/design profiles.  Also, to the extent that the multi-story urban condo is pretty much the antithesis of the mcmansion on the big lot, if people really were rejecting the suburban model this typology would be a strong selection.  Cox’s data indicates that is not the case.  Despite the existence of surveys in which people say they want more urban communities.

Shrinking cities like Cleveland are places that suffer the most from “wishful planning;” design, development and zoning decisions that don’t take a good, hard look at what people really do.  The explosion of condo development is due, at least in part, to the professions’ promotion of this typology as a key example of smart growth.

Is it possible that the built environment professions are engaging in “wishful planning” regarding dense, urban, live-work development?  Is this type of develop even necessary in shrinking cities, when land is often readily available to build suburban-style developments in the urban areas?  Can we afford to promote the ‘best’ typologies and uses, when so many communities just need bodies?

In a recent commentary in Newsweek, Lawrence C. Levy wrote that as a part of the push for healthcare reform, President Obama has “rediscovered” the suburbs, i.e., remembered that many of America’s swing voters live in suburban communities.  Also, that these communities are represent a more complicated and diverse demographic than in previous years.

Levy points out that today’s suburbs have many of the same problems that have been endemic to urban areas for decades.  He also makes the case that suburbs are challenged in solving these problems precisely because of their disconnected nature.

The article  seems to suggest that the administration will refocus their efforts on rebuilding the suburbs, beyond the needs of this particular legislative effort.  How true do you think this is?

Has Obama rediscovered the suburbs?

In addition to being eyesores, vacant and abandoned properties also threaten public safety. These properties can become breeding grounds for criminal activity and arson, placing strain on the city’s resources and police and fire departments – as evidenced by these recent news stories from Detroit:

  • Early Morning Arson Claims Vacant Properties
    Arson investigators are continuing their investigation of eight fires set early last Tuesday morning, all of which were vacant buildings.

  • Police Officer Killed in Shootout at Vacant Duplex
    Earlier this month, one officer was killed and four others wounded while responding to a report of gunshots at a vacant property. According to neighbors, drugs were being sold out of the building.

  • City Leaders Plan Demolitions to Cut Crime
    Buoyed by the police shootings, the Detroit City Council is working with Mayor David Bing to expedite a new city ordinance to hold property owners more accountable for their properties. The Mayor’s office is also using data to examine the correlation between crime and vacancies, which will inform the demolition of 3,000 rundown homes this year that will “cut crime and improve quality of life.”


Real property in the United States is deeply entrenched in constitutional statutes that protect the rights vested through ownership.  The vast web of legal control is designed to support private enjoyment and curtail unnecessary interference from the government.  These fundamental characteristics of American property law can create enormous obstacles for cities and towns striving to remedy issues of property abandonment and vacancy.  Abandoned properties often slip into a state of legal limbo because the motivation of ownership has been lost through financial hardships, or diluted by the anonymous nature of institutional investment vehicles.  This is where the powerful yet controversial tool of eminent domain comes into play.  The Kelo backlash has put shrinking cities in a difficult position in that eminent domain is a critical component to redeveloping vacancy induced blight on a neighborhood scale.  As noted in a previous post, the East Baltimore Development project run by EBDI has created a very equitable relocation program for displaced residents of the Middle East Baltimore neighborhood.  This relocation program is just one several components that make the East Baltimore project a model for effective Kelo prescribed eminent domain authority.  The foundation of the east Baltimore model is community involvement. Neighborhood residents have substantial interaction with the project in all phases. Numerous channels of communication have been established, and multiple organizations such as the resident-formed Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC) and the Annie E Casey Foundation ensure resident voices are heard.  These measures have created an open and collaborative dialogue between EBDI and neighborhood residents.  While progress has been made, statutory reform is required to make the East Baltimore model the standard rather than an outlier.  As Jim Kelly, director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore puts it, ‘if eminent domain is ever to play its essential role in a just redevelopment of a severely deteriorated urban neighborhood, then the rights of residents to plan the redevelopment and remain in the redeveloped community must be guaranteed by law.”

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