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.
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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.”

Baltimore interest groups are using a range of initiatives to handle the pressing issues of a shrinking city. Many neighborhoods are facing the same problems – too many vacant properties and abandoned buildings – but they are dealing with them in different ways. For instance, we saw how the City’s Code Enforcement Department is dealing with the issue from an economic perspective, in which code enforcement fees will assist in repairing or demolishing some of the properties. This enforcement process will even help acquire some of the properties (through a receivership process), which can then be sold to private developers in attempts to revitalize certain distressed areas. In addition, we witnessed how grassroots efforts at the neighborhood level could create community spaces that beautify the neighborhood, help the environment, and raise surrounding property values when led by residents themselves, as was the case with the Homestead Harvest Community Garden . On a larger scale, we learned how a nonprofit public/private partnership, East Baltimore Development Inc., was transforming East Baltimore through community initiatives and economic development, with a new neighborhood school and in cooperation with developers and Johns Hopkins University to create a science and technology park. The range of actors involved is also very broad, ranging from community groups led by residents, to small non-profits, large partnerships, and the City of Baltimore itself.

The proposed Science & Technology Park in the East Baltimore neighborhood

(http://www.forestcityscience.net/hopkins/sciencepark.shtml)

The diversity of the groups involved has led to a diversity of solutions, and I think that in the end, it’s going to need to be a combination of all these initiatives and actors that will help Baltimore successfully tackle this issue. There doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach to handle these problems between or within shrinking cities, so the combination of social, economic, and environmental initiatives is what will bring the greatest improvement to the city. The City of Baltimore should continue to embrace initiatives by these groups and encourage more ideas and projects to occur at the neighborhood level. Essentially, we learned that it takes team work to stabilize shrinking cities!

Abandoned rowhouses, Baltimore. http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/northave/interesting/

Walking through East Baltimore’s blocks of abandoned rowhouses and vacant lots, it’s hard to imagine what was. In the 1950s, the city was a thriving port and manufacturing center, the landscape of smokestacks indicating prosperity. In the second half of the twentieth century, Baltimore struggled severely, losing thousands of middle class manufacturing jobs that had once propelled this strong economic engine. When the jobs left, so did people–to the tune of almost 300,000 people since 1970. This incredible loss of population and jobs is laid bare in the built environment, with 17,000 vacant homes and lots across Baltimore. The abandoned homes, in particular, provide a haven for drugs and other illegal activity, exacerbating the pervasive social problems that plague the city.

Much has been written about the East Baltimore Development, Inc. plan to completely reinvent Middle East Baltimore adjacent to Johns Hopkins University’s medical campus; this effort will certainly make inroads on the vacant property problem in Baltimore, but it’s not a solution that will work anywhere else. In my opinion, small, incremental efforts at the neighborhood scale will be key in reducing the number of abandoned homes and lots; I find the most compelling of these strategies to be creating parks, open space, urban farms, and community gardens. This green infrastructure doesn’t just reclaim vacant property; it also offers an opportunity to strengthen connections among residents, to improve the quality of the land and water in the city, to provide Baltimoreans with healthier food options, and to teach technical skills to an underdeveloped workforce.

Harvest, http://cdn0.mattters.com/photos/photos/1081251/salads.jpg

Parks and People is the foremost resource for those who want to create green space in their neighborhoods. They offer a number of tools on their web site, including the comprehensive Guide to Greening Neighborhoods: Creating and Caring for Neighborhood Open Space.  The guide gives detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to plan, design, build, and maintain community space, including technical details about what to plant, advice for organization roles in each step of the process, and instructions for navigating the legal aspects of using the property.

Once a community green space is established, Baltimore Green Space is one of the resources that can help protect the space from redevelopment in perpetuity. The organization is a new land trust that works with communities to preserve the green infrastructure they have built and maintained, even though according to existing zoning the green use might not be the fullest and best use of the land. The land trust approach allows the community to have control over their green space, doing the planting, weeding, and other work, while Baltimore Green Space handles the details like taxes, legal papers, and technical assistance.

The City of Baltimore has begun to show formal support for green infrastructure as a strategy for dealing with their vacant and abandoned property problem. The 2009 Sustainability Plan outlined an effort to modify the city’s zoning code to allow for urban agriculture, increasing the number of gardens, farms, and cultivated green space in the city. Furthermore, the plan calls for incentives for urban agriculture and a strong urban agriculture strategy that can respond to the underserved market for healthy foods in the city.

Two new reports have been added to the burgeoning literature on shrinking cities:

  • Growing a University in a Shrinking City – Dr. David Sweet, president of Youngstown University (Ohio), played a critical role in the development of the Youngstown 2010 plan. During the process, thousands of residents and community leaders participated in the visioning and execution of the city’s new master plan.  (To learn more about the planning process, read Austin’s post, Citizens and Shrinking Cities – Youngstown 2010). In this new report, Dr. Sweet shares his experiences in helping to revision the community, and emphasizes the importance of campus-community partnerships.
  • Texas Problem Properties Toolkit – For two years, the Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas Law School conducted research on the most effective strategies that cities in Texas, and around the country, are using to combat the problem of vacant and abandoned properties. The group’s research culminated in this toolkit, which outlines a number of strategies for Texas cities including, community engagement, vacant property registration, landbanking, and code enforcement.

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.

It turns out that one of my coworkers, Emily Rice – a recent graduate from the Urban and Regional Planning Program at Portland State University – has also studied strategies to address vacant and abandoned spaces in cities. As part of the LocusLab, she and three classmates partnered with the Central Eastside Industrial Council in Portland on the project No Vacancy! Exploring Temporary Use of Empty Space in the Central Eastside Industrial District. The project looked at how to enliven vacant spaces in the district with temporary activities and developments.

Their scope of temporary use includes the usual urban gardens and public art, but also includes some creative and innovative uses, such as: live performances, food carts, mobile marketing, new technology demonstrations, and micro-enterprise developments. Also interesting is their broad definition of “temporary” – it’s not constrained to just a few years, but even as short as a month or a few hours.

Emily said that, “the experience proved to be extremely telling with respect to community dynamics, business motivations, and misinterpretations of intentions.”  And that she “realized early on that any temporary projects that could even remotely be linked to negative impacts on the District were not going to be easily accepted.”

So to help make the Central Eastside Industrial District (CEID) more open to unconventional temporary uses, the group produced two publications. One is a No Vacancy! Guide that serves as a how-to manual for planning temporary projects in the CEID, and includes step-by-step checklists for property owners and space users to ensure proper planning. The other is a Final Report that explores the temporary use of vacant spaces and the applicability to the Central Eastside Industrial District. The report examines the benefits of temporary use, identifies examples of other projects around the world, considers the opportunities and barriers present in the CEID, and makes recommendations to the Central Eastside Industrial Council for implementing a program that supports a variety of temporary uses.

When the group presented their work to the Portland community, they chose the most fitting location – a vacant space in the historic Ford Building.