Cuyahoga County Land bank could launch Cleveland renewal

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Cuyahoga County Land bank could launch Cleveland renewal

May 19, 2009 [Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer]

Marvin Fong/The Plain DealerEarth Day Coalition volunteer Josh Koppen plants native grasses and wildflowers on a vacant lot off Holmden Avenue in Cleveland as part of a pilot program supported by Neighborhood Progress Inc. to find new ways to manage open land in the city. Such efforts could influence the new Cuyahoga County land bank.

How the Cuyahoga County land bank will work

Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis is a popular guy these days.

His desk is awash in proposals for thousands of vacant and abandoned properties that will soon be scooped up by the powerful new county land bank he persuaded the Ohio legislature to authorize in December.

Urban farmers want to sprinkle the city with zero-fossil-energy greenhouses. Neighborhood activists envision parks, trails and community gardens. Rokakis even has a brochure from a businessman who wants to build a winery in Hough on Cleveland’s East Side.

“We’ve been bombarded,” says Rokakis, whose office has suddenly become a clearinghouse for ideas on how to reconfigure neighborhoods hollowed out by subprime lending and tens of thousands of mortgage foreclosures.

Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis

Age: 54.

Native of Cleveland, grew up in Brooklyn Centre neighborhood.

Graduated from Oberlin College in 1978 with a degree in government and urban studies.

Admitted to the bar in 1983 after earning a law degree at Cleveland Marshall College of Law.

Elected in 1977 to Cleveland City Council in old Ward 6, now Ward 15. Served 19 years, including seven years as chairman of the Finance Committee.

First elected Cuyahoga County treasurer in 1996.

Married to Laurie Rokakis; three children: Doug, 25; Christina, 24; Eleni, 21.

Getting involved

All meetings of the county land bank board of directors will be open to the public. Offices for the land bank are being established at 323 Lakeside Ave., Cleveland. A Web site will soon be up. Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis can be contacted at [email protected], or by calling 216-443-7400.

Formally launched by the county in April, the new, nonprofit land bank is the first of its kind in Ohio.

It could soon turn Cleveland into the nation’s biggest urban laboratory on how a declining industrial city with a comatose real estate market can downsize gracefully — and prepare to rebound in the future. The impact on the city as a whole could be far greater than individual projects such as the proposed medical mart and revamped convention center downtown.

“The land bank is a key piece in realizing that this is the time for some of the most significant urban planning in 100 years, if not longer,” said Frank Alexander, an Emory University law professor and a national expert on land banks.

Modern planning and zoning spread across the country in the 1920s to help cities manage growth. Those tools aren’t well-suited to managing shrinkage in a city like Cleveland, which could soon see its population dip below 400,000, roughly the number it had a century ago.

But a new breed of county land banks, which have the power to capture troubled properties more quickly than traditional methods, can help.

In 2002, Alexander helped local officials create the first of the new, supercharged land banks in Genesee County, Mich., to improve the fortunes of long-declining Flint, Mich.

Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, who heads the land bank, garnered national attention for stabilizing property values in Flint by demolishing vacant houses the way a surgeon cuts away gangrenous tissue.

His successes include boosting a $3 billion tax base by $112 million, attracting $30 million in fresh investment to the city’s main street, and finding a developer to rehab a historic downtown hotel.

Kildee says the Cuyahoga County land bank has the potential to do far more, because it will be the first modeled on the Michigan example to address a major metropolitan area. With 1.28 million residents, Cuyahoga County has three times the population of Genesee County.

“I can’t overstate the significance of the Cuyahoga County land bank,” Kildee said. “It’s the first attempt to take the concept we developed and apply it on a large scale.”

A May apple is one of the varieties planted on a vacant lot in Holmden Avenue in Cleveland as part of a pilot program on managing open land in the city, funded by Neighborhood Progress Inc.

Ideas proposed to the land bank

Among other things, the Cuyahoga County land bank could hasten the creation of urban farms and parks set amid consolidated neighborhoods, cultural attractions and high-tech development zones across Cleveland and surrounding suburbs.

Ideas that have landed on Rokakis’ desk include:

• “Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland,” a set of guidelines adopted by the Cleveland Planning Commission in December. The document envisions using vacant land for community gardens, agriculture and water-retention areas that could soak up runoff and ease the burden on the regional sewer system.

Opportunity Corridor, a proposed $350 million thoroughfare intended to spark economic development and bring jobs to a high poverty zone on the city’s East Side. The road will connect the stub end of I-490 at East 55th Street to rapidly developing University Circle.

The New City Beautiful, a concept promoted by Edward Hill, interim dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, who argues that a new network of beautifully landscaped urban parks would add enormous value to neighborhoods.

• Go! Growers, a potential program of the Cleveland Clinic, which would turn vacant city land “into sources of healthy food, community assets and ecological oases.”

• Chateau Hough, a winery proposed by Mansfield Frazier, a 63-year-old businessman, consultant, writer and blogger. Frazier wants to promote a positive image of the city’s black neighborhoods by producing fine wines on vacant land near the ever-expanding Cleveland Clinic.

Cuyahoga County Land Bank

What it is: A government corporation that will acquire, manage and dispose of thousands of vacant properties across the county.

How it works: Fueled by penalties and interest on unpaid real estate taxes, the land bank can buy properties wholesale from banks or loan-servicing companies. It will also acquire tax-delinquent properties through streamlined procedures.

Why it’s better than previous land banks: The county land bank has more powers, a bigger budget and a dedicated staff, making it more powerful than the city of Cleveland’s existing land bank.

Steven Litt

Drawing on these and other proposals, the land bank could shape a regional discussion about the urban future. But it can’t act alone. Its success depends on how well it collaborates with Cleveland and other municipalities, which, under the Ohio Constitution, determine land use and zoning within their boundaries.

“Planning will be much more syndicated,” said Cuyahoga County Planning Director Paul Alsenas. “You can’t put yourself in a cocoon.”

The potential for teamwork is built into the land bank’s governing board, which includes seven members from Cleveland, the county and suburbs.

Members will include Rokakis; two county officials appointed by the county commissioners; South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo; Berea Mayor Cyril Kleem; Chris Warren, Cleveland’s director of regional development; and Ward 12 City Councilman Tony Brancatelli.

Cleveland already has a land bank, but critics say its effectiveness is limited. Established in the 1970s with little power and virtually no staff, it has acted mainly as a passive repository for 9,500 vacant parcels acquired through judicial processes that can take years to resolve.

“There’s no real coherence to how the [Cleveland] land bank is operating,” Alexander said.

The Cuyahoga County land bank: a timeline

December 2008: Ohio legislature approves Senate Bill 353 authorizing Cuyahoga County to create a new, supercharged land bank.

Feb. 20, 2009: Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signs the land bank into law in a ceremony at Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs.

April 16: The Cuyahoga County commissioners direct the incorporation of the land bank.

April 17: Articles of incorporation filed with the state.

Early May: Land bank leases offices at 323 Lakeside Ave., Cleveland.

This week: First board meeting of the land bank scheduled. Agenda will include hiring a president and adopting a code of regulations.

Late summer: Land bank plans to issue $50 million to $70 million in bonds to pay for programs.

The powers of the land bank

The county land bank — or Land Reutilization Corporation — will be turbocharged. As an independent government corporation with a dedicated staff and substantial resources, it can cut the process of acquiring tax-foreclosed properties from as long as two years to 45 days. It can also buy discounted properties in bulk from banks or loan servicers.

The land bank can wipe titles clean of debt. It can buy, manage and sell buildings or vacant land. It can also float bonds against revenues including penalties and interest on overdue real estate taxes. Rokakis said the land bank could be ready to borrow $50 million to $70 million by late summer.

The immediate goal, Rokakis said, is to follow the Genesee County example by demolishing dilapidated houses to boost the values of remaining properties.

He also wants to halt speculation on thousands of foreclosed properties distressed by subprime lending. Investors are snapping up foreclosed properties for pennies on the dollar, and “flipping” them to unwitting buyers to make a quick buck.

“We have to be a firewall against these kinds of people and this kind of activity,” Rokakis says.

The land bank board of directors is scheduled to hold its first meeting this week, although a day has not been set.. Rokakis said it’s likely that Gus Frangos, the attorney, deputy treasurer and lead author of the land bank legislation, will be appointed the first director. Other staff members will soon be hired.

By the end of 2009, Rokakis estimates, the land bank will have assembled 1,000 properties, most of them in the city. Within a few years, it will control thousands more.

What’s key, though, is whether the land bank establishes a strong vision or simply creates a vast patchwork that leaves the city looser and baggier, not better.

“If Cleveland ends up as a city in which half of every street is empty, it would be a disaster,” said CSU’s Hill.
Assembling large parcels is not an easy task

Using the land bank to assemble larger parcels, though, could be hard. Recent changes in state law make it difficult — if not politically impossible — to assemble land for economic development through eminent domain, the government power to compel unwilling sellers to sell property for a set price.

Nearby Youngstown is trying to use money from federal block grants to persuade isolated residents to relocate from largely abandoned blocks to denser parts of town. The city wants to save money by vacating streets and, possibly, by removing utilities.

But Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams said residents aren’t buying the relocation offers yet.

Rokakis isn’t discouraged by the Youngstown experience. He said that residents on sparsely populated streets could be enticed to move elsewhere in the county if it helps assemble large lots for redevelopment.

Cleveland, however, doesn’t yet have a clear vision for consolidating neighborhoods.

The “Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland” guidelines adopted by the city in December show how future development should concentrate on downtown, University Circle, Opportunity Corridor and the proposed new Port of Cleveland along Lake Erie at East 55th Street.

But the document doesn’t articulate a big idea for green space in the city, such as new agricultural districts, or a series of mini Emerald Necklaces.

Reimagining a More Sustainable ClevelandA rendering shows how a block in Cleveland could be loosened up by providing space for retention ponds that could soak up rainwater, lightening the load on the region’s sewer system.

In the absence of such a vision, neighborhood planners are taking small bites.

The nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc., which helped fund the “Reimagining” project, is working on pilot projects to demonstrate techniques that could be used to stabilize vacant land, such as re-planting native grasses in “low-mow,” easy-to-maintain landscapes.

In Slavic Village, a Cleveland neighborhood hit hard by subprime lending, Councilman Brancatelli wants to thin out dense streets of wooden houses crammed on tiny lots that were built to provide cheap housing for immigrant workers a century ago.

He’s working with the nonprofit Slavic Village Development Corp. to enable homeowners to acquire vacant lots as side yards or community gardens and to create new athletic fields, parks and trails.

Rokakis’ long-range view is that Cleveland is likely to shrink a bit more before rebounding later in the 21st century.

The Plain DealerBusinessman Mansfield Frazier stands on land in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, near the Cleveland Clinic, where he’d like to build a winery. If he can’t get control of his preferred site, which has been identified as part of the proposed Upper Chester residential development, he’ll ask the Cuyahoga County land bank for help finding another spot nearby.Global warming and rising sea levels, he said, will eventually halt growth along the coasts and across the sun belt. Money and people will flow back to the Great Lakes region, with its abundant fresh water.

“There will be a lot of people living here in Cleveland as coasts flood — and they will — and as natural resources grow more scarce,” Rokakis said.

Cleveland City Planning Director Robert Brown agrees with the Rokakis forecast. The question, he says, is the length of the interim between now and the growth that’s likely to come.

Rokakis knows the land bank will be closely watched, especially because the FBI is investigating possible public corruption in a probe that has touched Cuyahoga Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Auditor Frank Russo. The treasurer’s office is not part of the investigation.

The state’s enabling legislation for the land bank requires regular audits and lots of transparency. That visibility will intensify the discussion about how best to use a new resource across the county — open land.

And so Rokakis is sifting a growing stack of proposals, including Mansfield Frazier’s concept to produce a wine called “Chateau Hough” on land near the Cleveland Clinic.

“Mansfield happens to be a very intelligent guy who has researched this carefully,” Rokakis said. “Winemaking occurs all over the country. Why can’t it happen here?”