February 5, 2013 [The Plain Dealer]
A clear-eyed master plan to deal with the vacant and abandoned properties that crater Cleveland neighborhoods is long overdue. Up to now, a diverse and dedicated group of neighborhood planners has been driving decisions. These actors include City Hall, the Thriving Communities Institute, the Cuyahoga County land bank and community development corporations.
Land bank guru Jim Rokakis and City Councilman Tony Brancatelli have become national leaders in the restoration and stabilization of foreclosure-scarred neighborhoods.
But the lack of a broad and transparent neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis that includes resident input threatens to make antagonists of people who should be allies in the fight against blight.
Ward 8 Councilman Jeffrey Johnson, for instance, rails against what he perceives as a demolition imperative that prefers to raze a house rather than rehabilitate it.
In an effort to save architectural gems he believes could be restored to their former splendor, Johnson said he is “mothballing” specific properties and funneling block grant money through the Glenville Development Corp. to hire residents to maintain the homes until he can find the appropriate investors.
His instincts are admirable — but to spend money saving properties that may not have value in anyone’s eyes but his own is not practical. Given the thousands of zombie properties in Cleveland, mothballing is not a smart alternative to selective demolition.
Now — as City Council prepares to help fund a study that will examine whether demolition reduces the domino effect of foreclosures — the time is ripe to draft a positive plan for neighborhood revitalization and sustainable development, under which demolition would be one tool. Such a plan could address the concerns of preservationists such as Johnson as well as the reality that, if done right, selective demolition can stabilize neighborhoods and protect property values.
The last thing residents need — especially those living on streets with blighted, abandoned homes that invite crime — is a council catfight. They want relief, a reasonable aspiration that should be achieved through collaboration, not confrontation.