Austin Watkins wrote a great post on the reuse of the Detroit-Superior Bridge.  In his post, he highlights the bridge’s unique site and ways it could become the anchor for redevelopment of trendy corridor.  It’s a proposal that’s well-considered and has an obvious model in the High Line Project in New York.  I think that there are larger factors that merit taking a different approach.

First, NYC is not Cleveland.  New York has not just numerical density but, one could argue, “a culture of density.”  Part of the mystique of New York is the combination of anonymity and close quarters.  One sign of the differences between the two cities — recent articles in on Gothamist, MSNBC and the New York Post about the Standard Hotel a high-end hotel near the High Line.  Apparently, both guests and staff like to engage in a bit of exhibitionism in the windows of the hotel.  A bellhop interviewed said:

“We don’t discourage it. In actual fact, we encourage it. One of the managers even got naked in a room, and filmed it—they were considering a live feed for the Web site.”

Call me a prude, but I don’t see any parts of that story happening in Cleveland — which is a good thing.  There are other more PG activities taking place close to the High Line, including a woman who gives cabaret performances with her friends on her fire escape overlooking the High Line.  My contention is that these are mostly “only in New York” activities.

The main reasons the comparison of the two spaces needs further investigation are physical, temporal and social.  Although the High Line and the Detroit-Superior Bridge are superficially similar, they are actually very different.  The High Line is an elevated track through a canyon of multi-story buildings.  It’s only about 20 feet above the sidewalk and open to the sky.  You can easily see and be seen (see above paragraphs) on the High Line.  It doesn’t have any commercial uses on the structure to interfere with recreational use, but the surrounding buildings can be/are packed with all kinds of service and retail. 

The Detroit-Superior Bridge is … a bridge.  It’s nearly a mile long and views in are obscured by the upper deck and the steel structure on each side; the Bridge is 96 feet above the river; if you could get out on a boat, you would need to be at least 96 feet away to get a useful site line on activities in the lower deck.  This all means the views out of the structure are great, but not so good into it.  The site isn’t surrounded by real estate, so any commercial uses would be on the streets at either end of the span, or take away from potential passive recreation space on the span.

The High Line Project represents over ten years of community activism and local pressure.  A visit to The High Line’s official web site notes that a the Friends of the High Line formed in 1999, and the city didn’t formally adopt the project until 2002.  Certainly efforts to activate the lower deck of Detroit-Superior have a similar long history.  But can Cleveland afford to make the kind of investment in the lower deck that New York made in the High Line?

The Re-Building Blocks  report developed by PolicyBridge paints a disturbing picture of demographics in Cleveland.  Downtown and Ohio City are the center of a small cluster of communities that were estimated to gain population in 2009.  Between 1950 and 2000, the two neighborhoods lost 50.6% and 64.7% of their population, respectively.  Ohio City has the highest level of residential vacancies of 36 months or more of all Cleveland neighborhoods, at 66.4%.  Looking at educational attainment, Downtown and Ohio City residents with less than a high school diploma are 15.8% and 37.7%, respectively; the average for Cuyahoga County is 18.4%.  The case can be made that, with the number of universities and medical facilities in Cleveland, the Creative Class is already there — they simply are not choosing to live these two communities.  Additionally, a strategy aimed at the Creative Class overlooks the needs of the current residents.

In the case of Cleveland, it is important to develop projects hat can generate positive outcomes quickly.  They should have a low investment threshold, be easy to carry out and easy to remove if they aren’t working.  They should also take advantage of the unique nature of the bridge — it’s a covered space with great views out and controlled access.  Why not:

  1. Continue the schedule of temporary events begun with the Bridge Project in fall 2009, but analyse these to decide what uses or combination of uses are likely to work as permanent occupants of the span.   One success of the Bridge Project is in 2010, Ingenuity Fest, billed as “Cleveland’s cutting edge festival of arts, music, and technology,” is holding its yearly week-long event the lower level of Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.  It is important to remember that the Bridge Project and other Pop-Up City efforts generate “buzz” precisely because they are temporary, so it is vital to understand what will work on a long-term basis.
  2. Offer uses that can promote positive outcomes for the neighborhood that’s already there, such as a workshop on GED and continuing education or an auction of city or CDC-owned homes.  These temporary uses take advantage of the bridge’s unique situation as a space “facing” two neighborhoods.
  3. Offer options that are not available in other spaces.  As an example, many coffee chains and fast-food restaurants are no longer offering free WiFi.  What if the lower deck became a huge free WiFi hotspot?  Educational and arts organizations could take advantage of the views for painting and drawing classes.  The large open spans and heavy-duty structure lend themselves to using the lower deck as a community wood shop or to classes in making large-scale sculptures.

It is important to remember that the liability issues for temporary uses might be very different from long-term occupations.  However, a series of well-considered temporary uses can help the city identify specific uses that serve the unique needs of Cleveland.  Cleveland has a wealth of heart and talent — given time, there’s no doubt citizens will find an “only in Cleveland” use that is as specific and successful as the High Line in NYC.


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” (, 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.

What could make two old women think it was a good idea to stay on a barely populated block in a Detroit neighborhood? Evidently, a blot could.

As described in Improve Your Lot!, Interboro Partners’ essay in Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, “blotting” is the process whereby Detroit homeowners expand their yards by claiming adjacent abandoned lots – either through purchase or informal adoption.  Interboro Partners acknowledges that the results of these expansions are often unattractive; the sites are often acquired to park multiple cars.  Nevertheless, as pointed out in Thomas Sheffer’s previous post, they represent a valid, grass-roots response to Detroit’s vacancy issues.

In my opinion there are two key elements of the Interboro analysis meriting further exploration.  First, blots often coincide with multiple generations of a family staying in a neighborhood and living on a single or connected set of blots.  Second, the inference that Detroit residents would buy these lands if possible, thereby bringing the lots back onto the tax rolls; and that the biggest impediment to purchase is the poor record-keeping and convoluted approval process of city government.

Many efforts on the municipal, county and state level have been proposed to improve this process.  The simplest, proposed by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was to simply allow residents to buy any adjacent vacant lot for $200.  Interboro sees this proposal as “in the spirit of the sort of planning … that attempts to identify, document, and finally advocate for potentially progressive practices that … already exist, but are underappreciated and have little legitimacy.”  They see the professional in this case as a sort of “ghostwriter,” helping the citizen implement grassroots ideas in the best possible way. (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

The issue of lost tax revenue is by no means a small one.  At the time of Interboro’s research, estimates projected that Detroit lost $60 million in uncollected property taxes every year, with more than $1 billion lost in the past 20 years. Detroit only collects 87 percent of its property taxes every year, when most cities collect 98 percent.  Records showed 33 percent of all properties in the city are tax delinquent, and that more than $165 million is owed in back taxes.  Detroit employed a total of two tax collectors to deal with this backlog.  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)  Certainly making the purchase of additional lots would increase potential tax revenues, but would do little to increase Detroit’s effectiveness in actually collecting taxes.

By far the most interesting potential outcome of facilitating blots is the development of intergenerational families in communities.  Detroit’s lack of a tax base and poor collection would mean that many services for residents are either being eliminated, scaled back or taken up by the non-profit sector.  Social researchers often point to the disruption of kinship networks and familial bonds in distressed communities as creating the need for such services.  The lives that Americans lead today, regardless of class, are defined by high levels of mobility, disbursed families, and an increased need to purchase services that were provided by nuclear or extended families 50 years ago.  When discussing the imminent bankruptcy of the Social Security System when the Baby Boom Generation retires, the question often asked is, “how are we going to pay for taking care of all these seniors as they age?”  It seems to me that the question should be, “Why are people not taking care of their parents, and how can we as a society facilitate kinship care?”

So let’s get back to those two old ladies in Detroit.  As described in Improve Your Lot!, the site developed as follows:

“Wanda Cowans and Helen McMurray are two sisters who created a shared blot.  The chronology of their blot formation is as follows: both sisters migrated from the South and upon arrival in Detroit were renters.  In the mid-1960s, Wanda lived in an apartment and Helen rented a house at 2005 Elmhurst Avenue (fig. 4).  Helen was in the process of saving money to buy a house, but at that time still couldn’t afford one.  In the aftermath of the 1967 riot, property values on Elmhurst Avenue plum­meted. In April 1969, Helen was finally able to buy a house at 1987 Elmhurst.  That summer, Wanda bought the house at 2005 Elmhurst that Helen had just vacated, which was just three lots away.  Like so many buildings on the block, the houses at 2001 and 1995 Elmhurst were abandoned and torn down.  The sisters acquired the vacant land from the city and created the large shared yard that now connects their two houses.”  (Armborst, D’Oca and Theodore 2008)

So let’s spell this out – two sisters relocated to Detroit and worked steadily over a period of 40 years, during Detroit’s worst decline, to buy houses on the same block. When faced with the abandonment and demolition of two houses between them, did they move out of the neighborhood into senior housing, or reduce their expenditures by moving into a single house?  They bought more property to create a shared garden.  Seems like the kind of residents Detroit needs to keep by any means necessary.

The theme of extended family is a consistent one throughout the Interboro analysis.  The Garden Blot is a six-lot blot next to Jean Anderanin’s home.  Assembled over a number of years, the lots are adjacent to Jean’s house, but three of the lots are owned by her son Michael.  Why do we care?  Michael lives in a home across the street, with neighbors on either side.  His purchase of three vacant lots did nothing to directly impact the value of his property.  Victor Toral’s expanded yard, combining purchased and appropriated lots, has allowed him to expand his garage and add a bedroom.  It has also created an enclosed playground for his kids with a tree house and swing set.

Would Michael Anderanin have purchased three vacant lots adjacent to a stranger’s house?  Would two neighbors, no matter how friendly, buy the lots between their houses to create a jointly owned garden?  Would Victor Toral have purchased or appropriated as many lots without a desire to create a really cool, safe playground for his kids?  I propose that the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘no.’ Because even in today’s America, family matters.  In places like Detroit, where there is the distinct possibility that you would have no neighbors at all, family might be the only people who will stick it out with you.

Kinship and land ownership have been intertwined in American history since the beginning, and even today, accumulating land is one of the surest ways for Americans to accumulate and invest wealth.  The unexplored potential of the Interboro analysis is that it may offer cities whose lands have little material value a chance to package lands to increase their subjective value.  Detroit still has many assets, including good universities and cultural institutions.  What if it also became the place that facilitates multiple generations of families living together in close proximity, and affordably creating large compounds that offer the sort of intergenerational interactions so many of us seem to miss?

Both Thomas Sheffer and the researchers at Interboro contend that blots may be “anti-urban” or lack aesthetic quality.  I believe that nothing is more anti-urban or ugly than a street full of abandoned homes.  Further, I would contend that any of the families in these case studies would say that their blots are beautiful, not for what they look like but for what they mean.  For Ms. Cowan and Ms. McMurray, their blot is the culmination of forty years of fortitude; Victor Toral’s blot is a place his kids can play safely and with plenty of room.  Michael and Jean Anderanin’s blot is both a beautiful garden and the concrete symbol of a son’s love for his mother.  The beauty of these properties comes not from the abstract formal values of outsiders, but from deeply personal and specific meanings created as part and parcel of assembling these properties.

There are many ways that the blot process could be specifically targeted to, and marketed to, extended families.  Doubtless no program of this type could solve all of Detroit’s vacant property issues.  When approaching the phenomenon of blots, professionals need to keep in mind that beauty flows from meaning, not vice versa.  If we concentrate our efforts on facilitating residents’ efforts at creating meaning from vacant land, beauty will take care of itself.


Armborst, Tobias, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore. “Improve Your Lot!” Cities Growing Smaller Journal No. 1: Urban Infill, 2008: 45 – 64.

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.

During economic downturns, funding from private companies, foundations, and government grants usually wane.  So what ideas from other organizations can we borrow that can help community development corporations sustain neighborhood revitalization initiatives and diversify their funding source?

Why do people include certain organizations in their wills and trusts?  One reason is at one point their lives were profoundly transformed by those organizations’ work.  They have an emotional connection with those organizations that have been a part of their lives.  They value what those organizations do.  They believe that even after they pass on, a part of them will continue to do good.  They believe that their heirs are well-off enough.  They might not have anyone else to pass their assets to.

Cancer foundations, faith based organizations, and university foundations have long marketed—and benefited from—planned giving.  Some organizations even have specialists to actively market the effort and guide the legal process.

In addition to increased funding, those organizations also benefited from having a more diversified funding source.  An over reliance on a few sources can mean that when the funders are not doing so well, the survivability of the recipients and their initiatives might be jeopardized.

As related to neighborhood revitalization, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is one such organization that capitalizes on those benefits. PHS helps improve the quality of life, creates a sense of community through horticulture, and uses innovative greening strategies to improve neglected urban properties.  To support those efforts in the future, PHS offers bequests, trusts, and life insurance policies as planned giving options.

All those reasons point to why CDCs should actively market planned giving as part of their long-term funding strategies.


The PHS planned giving webpage is at