Editor’s note: The foreclosure crisis is reshaping cities and towns across America. Planners are taking note of contributors to the current problems and are taking action to address the crisis while avoiding such massive fallout in future real estate market downturns. This three-part series focuses on the how the foreclosure wave has hit suburbia, urban communities and rural communities, and how they are responding to the challenge.
Thinking small isn’t easy — not when growth is the politically hip thing to do.
For struggling Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Detroit, civic leaders need to buy into the idea that it’s hip to be square and transform their communities into smaller, greener and healthier metropolises, experts say.
Their future depends on it. But experts warn that making a successful transition will require a vision that breaks with tradition, a new political will, and smarter spending of financial resources currently strained by the mortgage crisis and steep economic downturn.
"What we’ve got to do is take the long view — to begin to think about us as a smaller city. It is very hard to transform shrinkage with budgetary (limitations)," said Norman Krumholz, a planning expert at Cleveland State University and a member of the city planning commission.
Cleveland has little choice — and so do other urban centers that have been wrestling for decades with thousands of vacant properties triggered by declining populations and a dwindling tax base. The avalanche of foreclosures has piled onto these woes.
"We were talking about urban renewal in the ’60s. The question now is, ‘Do we use that land for other purposes?’ " said Casey Dawkins, co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech University in Arlington, Va.
These days, all eyes are on Cleveland as the forerunner for reinventing a city that has lost half of its population since 1950 — a decline fueled by the post-World War II march to the suburbs and vanishing manufacturing jobs. In December, the city planning commission backed guidelines that advocates say will serve as a framework for future land use and zoning decisions and counter the economic devastation caused by widespread foreclosures and a growing inventory of vacant properties.
Called "Re-Imaging a Sustainable Cleveland," the plan pictures a smaller, green city with larger parks, cleaner watersheds, and burgeoning urban farms and community gardens. Urban forests could be planted to leach soil laced with toxic chemicals.
"The foreclosure crisis has been Cleveland’s trial by fire. This is a time we can repair mistakes of the past. Big chunks of the city can’t redevelop back to the 1950s," said Theresa Schwarz, a senior planner for Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.
"The powers to be are going to have to take this into consideration. They have to. They are facing a crisis of vacant land," he said.
Cleveland has 3,300 acres of vacant land with an estimated 15,000 empty buildings. Every year, the city demolishes about 1,000 buildings to lessen neighborhood blight and the risk of fire and vandalism. The city plans to use more than half of its $25.5 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program money to tear down 1,700 homes.
Other cities are razing dilapidated buildings as well. Minneapolis, Youngstown (Ohio), and Detroit are earmarking at least a third of their federal money for demolition.
In Cleveland, the number of vacant properties is expected to climb even higher as homeowners face a new round of interest-rate resets over the next two years.
"It’s not over yet. We’re expecting another wave of foreclosures," Schwarz said.
City leaders aren’t sitting back. Cleveland is suing nearly two dozen Wall Street banks and mortgage companies, accusing them of predatory lending practices. "We want relief. We have a lawful duty to deal with vacant houses that we weren’t responsible for (creating)," said Chris Warren, the city’s economic development director.
On the plus side, Cleveland and other shrinking cities have long resumes in dealing with distressed properties. They also have developed a staple of experienced nonprofit housing organizations that have launched numerous neighborhood rebuilding projects. …CONTINUED