Can Detroit Keep Empty Lots From Becoming Eyesores Again?

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Can Detroit Keep Empty Lots From Becoming Eyesores Again?

May 28, 2014 [Karen Weise, Businessweek]

Detroit is home to 114,033 empty lots—and about 5 percent have become illegal trash dumps. As the city considers tearing down tens of thousands of blighted properties, there’s new focus on what it could and should do to keep the cleared space from becoming blighted yet again.

Detroit’s Blight Removal Task Force issued a massive report on Tuesday that found 30 percent of the city’s structures are blighted. The recommendation: Utilize the authority of the city’s land bank to tear down about 10 percent of the city’s buildings right away. But mass demolitions would give the bank “the responsibility of maintaining tens of thousands of vacant lots until they can be repurposed, with no funding to do so,” the report warns.

The cost of upkeep for each vacant lot runs about $150 per year, meaning Detroit would spend $7.5 million a year to keep just 50,000 empty lots tidy. The mechanics of vacant space are something Detroit knows well, with more than 52,000 lots already in the city’s possession. The report suggest immediate removal of debris after demolitions, followed by the planting of slow-growing grass or clover on the sites. Those plants require more time and care initially to take root than traditional grass but demand less maintenance over the long haul.

The blight report envisions nonprofit groups and community organizations footing much of the bill and taking on most of the upkeep. While some efforts have tried to do this locally, it has never been done on this scale. Rock Ventures, the umbrella company for Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert’s investments, is giving $100,000 to pilot a program to coordinate the lot maintenance among city, community, and corporate groups. The effort aims to figure out how best to create everything from an online citywide maintenance schedule to local distribution of gardening supplies, such as wheelbarrows. Rock Ventures has also committed 5,000 volunteer hours to the maintenance.

What to do with well-maintained lots is yet another question. The land bank has already started auctioning off abandoned homes that can be made livable again, and the report says it should immediately implement its planned program to let homeowners buy vacant lots adjacent to their property. Otherwise, the report is virtually silent on the land bank’s options. The more established land bank in nearby Flint has a similar side-lot program, and it also gives and leases plots to community groups to maintain green spaces and urban gardens.

The overarching goal of the antiblight efforts is to give the city a relatively clean slate to work from as it emerges from bankruptcy. If that rebirth works and creates growth, perhaps someday the vacant properties could be redeveloped. In the meantime, Detroit will need a lot more lawn mowers.