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.

Drew Carey has jumped on efforts to help save Cleveland in a big way with a six-episode (10 min each) documentary series called “Reason Saves Cleveland” that aired on Reason.tv in mid-March. First detailing Cleveland’s history of decline, the series then goes into a selection of issues, including: schools, public-private partnerships, redevelopment and how to bring people back. It is a well thought out series and nice to see some celebrity intervention.

Check it out at:

http://reason.tv/video/show/1050

Intro to the series:

“Like all too many American cities, Cleveland seems locked into a death spiral, shedding people, jobs, and dreams like nobody’s business. When it comes to education, business climate, redevelopment, and more, Clevelanders have come to expect the worse. Is a renaissance possible? Of course it is, but only if the city’s leaders and residents are willing to learn from other cities such as Houston, Chicago, Oakland, and Indianapolis. And only if they’re willing to try new approaches to old problems.

Reason.tv’s Nick Gillespie narrates and talks with educators, elected officials, businesspeople, policy experts, and residents from all walks of life. Stay tuned for a documentary series that maps a route back to prosperity and growth not just for Cleveland but for other once-great American cities.”

Great work Drew…and as you would say: Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks!…Ohio!…(echo)

Even though Cleveland is a shrinking city, it doesn’t lack social, developmental, and political capital at a neighborhood level. Out of Cleveland’s 36 defined neighborhoods, 34 have an established Community Development Corporation (CDC). However, it is important to note that some of Cleveland’s CDCs are in hiatus or lack capacity. CDCs act as an organization that encourages non-residential economic development, residential development and rehabilitation, neighborhood improvements, citizen outreach, grassroots organizing, and assistance with planning projects. Often times CDCs build human and social capital of neighborhoods by providing residents with dedicated staff members to educate them on pressing issues, coordinate planning and development, and provide for on-going dialogue of neighborhood concerns.

CDCs can play a crucial role in the development of neighborhood plans. The Center for Neighborhood Development prepared the “Principles of Neighborhood Planning for Community Development” (http://urban.csuohio.edu/cnd/principlesnpcd.pdf), which outlines reasons for neighborhood planning, case studies, and strategies for implementation. The article states that

“Neighborhood planning programs generally are more responsive to local characteristics, desires, and problems. They help strengthen communities through the increased interaction of those people involved in the plan and help leaders become more involved in citywide affairs. Implementation is generally more successful, with neighborhood planning resulting in more physical improvements actually being made.”

Cleveland’s CDCs have become involved in neighborhood planning over the years. Examples include the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, Ohio Near West, St. Clair-Superior Neighborhood Development Association, and many others. Cleveland’s extensive network of CDCs affords the City a unique opportunity to craft a city-wide comprehensive plan based off of individual neighborhood plans.

I would suggest that when Cleveland’s comprehensive plan is amended or rewritten that a neighborhood planning approach should be taken. First, most of Cleveland’s CDCs have the capacity to organize and carry-out planning activities, additionally the City can provide architecture and planning services (city staff), meeting space, and other support. If the City works with CDCs to create a comprehensive plan that is based off of smaller neighborhood plans the following may happen: increased public participation in planning; increased social and human capital of residents and CDCs; pressure for implementation of the plan from CDCs and residents; and a clear vision guiding the city forward. Overall, neighborhood planning allows the residents to give input on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, challenges, and assets of their community. This may be a better approach than strictly analyzing data, building characteristics, and transportation.

The use of ‘blots’, or ‘side lot expansions’, is a technique that gives homeowners with vacant land adjacent to their home the opportunity to purchase that property as an expansion to their own for a nominal cost. Essentially, this concept is an incentive to de-densify neighborhoods. This immediately strikes me as contrary to many smart growth principals, notably that in reducing density it makes transit less feasible and reduces the community attributes of neighborhoods.

Blot in Detroit

Blot in Detroit

The article, “IMPROVE YOUR LOT!” from Cities Growing Smaller, analyzes the growing use of blots in Detroit and shows several photo examples of blots with high, unfriendly fences (like the example above). This privatization of urban space might be contrary to the community-oriented fundamentals of New Urbanism, but not to what they call “New Suburbanism” – a term for “the process through which entrepreneurial homeowners take, borrow, or buy adjacent land.” Their analysis points out the many suburban amenities these blots enable homeowners to develop, including: additions to their homes, garages, pools, playgrounds and gardens.

Diagram of various uses of blots

During a class visit to Cleveland in October, my thoughts on blots quickly began to evolve into something more positive. The density of many neighborhoods in the city, built for mid 20th century industrial workers, no longer suits the city’s needs or many citizens’ ideology.  Cleveland’s metropolitan population statistics tell the tale; the city is shrinking but the region is sprawling (see map below). There are many reasons for this, but one is certainly the quest for more space and privacy…attributes that blots can help supply.

Cleveland Sprawl

Blots, or the New Suburbs, may not be part of smart growth, but they can serve as a valuable tool for “smart decline” as well as a way to combat urban sprawl. Setting aside certain neighborhoods with the best potential for successful density, mixed use and transit as “urban catchment hubs”, other areas can then be set aside for reducing density with the use of blots and other incentives, such as conservation easements, that set aside open space. Additionally, by attracting people seeking suburban values to stay in the city or move closer to urban hubs, this could also work to bring metropolitan growth back in to the city. This could be combined with many existing growth management tools that could be tweaked for shrinking cities, such as growth boundaries, impact fees and TDRs.

Creating a systematic way to use blots in this way is something that land trusts and land banks are already toying with, but perhaps government could take a stronger role. If nothing else, blots remove the burden of maintaining vacant lots and put that land back on the tax roll. Even modest shifts of population back towards the core would lead to many other positive outcomes that shrinking cities would definitely benefit from.

Upon visiting a new city, I love to put on my running shoes and experience the city on foot. When given this opportunity on a recent trip to Cleveland, my instincts led me straight to the city’s Lake Erie waterfront. During my trek through the monumental downtown and past the impressive Brown’s stadium and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was surprisingly impressed by the city’s design and aesthetics…that is, until I reached the water.

The small nub of accessible waterfront stretches only a short distance and offers little more than a dead end with a sidewalk and barrier. Why is the Cleveland’s waterfront, an asset that most cities seize upon as their defining feature, such an underutilized amenity?

Much of the answer to this is that most of the waterfront is tied up as a port. This necessary outlet for Cleveland’s industrial-based economy is in obvious need of redevelopment, a project that a shrinking city is hesitant to even think about. In October 2009, the Kahr Real Estate group released a report entitled “Cleveland Waterfront Market Demand and Development Options” that reaches many conclusions that the city should be excited to hear.

The outlook of the report was much more optimistic than I expected, proclaiming that: “Cleveland can take on a successful, large-scale waterfront development based on three compelling reasons”:

  1. Cities around the world have successfully undertaken large-scale waterfront redevelopments while facing similar depressed local real estate and economic markets.
  2. Even under conservative assumptions about the future growth potential in the local economy, there is sufficient demand on the Port’s current waterfront site over the coming twenty-years to support development.
  3. A detailed financial analysis of potential development of the site based on results of a demand model reveals positive yields for the Port and other related stakeholders.

I had to ask myself, are they talking about the same Cleveland? Indeed they were. The report details a list of ten successful waterfront redevelopment projects in cities dealt a similar set of cards to Cleveland, including the US cities of Baltimore, NYC, Chicago and Pittsburgh. These projects all reconnected downtowns to waterfronts and catalyzed positive economic change – with repercussions across the city.

Suggested reorganization of Cleveland's port

I was actually able to meet Josh Kahr, of Kahr Real Estate, at the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in early November where he was a speaker on a discussion panel entitled “Post-industrial can mean regeneration…Especially on the Waterfront.” While the panel acknowledged the significant challenges of similar redevelopment efforts, overall it was a very upbeat presentation. This was especially striking considering the generally somber tone of the conference given the downturn’s stagnant effects on real estate. So, if the ULI thinks post-industrial waterfronts have potential in today’s economic climate – then perhaps Kahr’s report is something Cleveland should seriously consider.

While in Cleveland last weekend, with fellow classmates from the Shrinking Cities Studio, I relied on the Erie Island Coffee Co. for my morning cup of coffee. And printed on the cup sleeve at Erie is this quote, “Don’t Give Up the Ship. – Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1813).” In my opinion, this rallying cry sums up the visit to Cleveland quite nicely.

The purpose of the trip was to see a ‘Shrinking City’ first-hand, and learn about the efforts underway to proactively address Cleveland’s problems with home foreclosures and blighted and vacant properties.

On Friday, we met with people in the planning, community development, and legal fields – all of whom are well versed in the dynamics and needs of a Shrinking City, and are committed to improving the plight of Cleveland.

But I wondered if this understanding and commitment exists beyond this circle of practitioners? I found an answer, the very next morning, in the local newspaper.

There was an article in Saturday’s (10/17) edition of The Plain Dealer about the installation of Ronald Berkman, the sixth president of Cleveland State University (CSU is located in a central Cleveland neighborhood, close to downtown). According to the article, in his address Berkman vowed to not only transform the university but also the surrounding neighborhood. Specifically he said:

“Cleveland State is in and of this city, and the connection and bonds between the two of them must be strengthened…I envision a day soon when faculty and staff will come to live in this neighborhood, send their children to school here and together build a new, vibrant, neighborhood in the city of Cleveland.”

Though I can’t presume that Berkman’s remarks are representative of all local leaders, it’s a promising declaration from one of the city’s anchor institutions. I hope he sticks to it, and that others follow suit. Each statement like this bolsters the work of the folks we met with last weekend, and it says to larger community, “Clevelanders, Don’t Give Up the Ship!”