If you lived here, you'd be home already

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If you lived here, you’d be home already

May 6, 2009 [Dan Harkins, SCENE]

Drive east out of downtown Cleveland, and it’s just a few minutes before you come to one of the city’s starkest divides between the haves and the have-nots, at the exit for the tony lakeshore enclave of Bratenahl and the cratered Glenville home of Superman. Turn left, and there are manicured mansions and not a pothole in sight. Turn right, and it’s like a city that got overrun by wolves. It’s in this neighborhood and in Slavic Village on the city’s south side — two neighborhoods that are poster children for the ravages of the foreclosure crisis — that the county land bank will kick off its work, expanding upon the city’s efforts to reshape and rethink the Cleveland of tomorrow.

It’s obvious why they’re starting here: You glean right away there’s something precious to save. You can see the succession of successes and failures. The vacant row house boarded up and peeling apart, across the street from the well-kept branch of the public library. The trim, clean Glenville Plaza and East Side Market, then the empty grocery store and the battered storefronts. Grand, well-tended gingerbread houses with views of the Cultural Gardens, surrounded by others with shards for windows, inhabited only by ghosts.

“Five, six, seven, eight — it’s unbelievable,” says Tracey Kirksey, steering her red Mini Cooper through the streets she oversees as executive director of Glenville Development Corp. “Oh, wait — there’s nine there now. There once was a time when we rivaled downtown for retail and restaurants and all that; we were known as the Gold Coast. Now, people come back to see how the neighborhoods are doing, and what they see is how this economy has devastated so many parts of it.”

It’s the map that was handed to Kirksey when she came aboard 14 years ago. The addresses are the same, but the view has changed. On one block, nearly half of the 40 homes are abandoned and nearly stripped. Nearly a thousand addresses in all, she estimates, are distressed, vacant or demolished. The ones that remain have been left with new surroundings and forestalled plans. About half the people in Glenville’s 8,000-plus homes (average income: $22,392) truly care what happens to their neighborhood. The other half, she laments, couldn’t give a shit.

But help is coming, in the form of $47 million in federal dollars from the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of ’08. At the same time, the county’s Common Pleas Foreclosure Mediation Program has started rolling, and recent reports show the possibility that the level of foreclosures is hitting, at least, a holding pattern.

It’s a good time for the county land bank, which county treasurer Jim Rokakis fought in Columbus to establish and which was unceremoniously funded with a million federal dollars a few weeks ago by the county commissioners, to get things started on a county-wide scale. With even more federal stimulus money expected to flow in down the road, folks like Kirksey haven’t felt this optimistic in years. For the last eight years, they felt like winning the lottery was more likely than a concerted federal response. Then again, that will only lay the groundwork for another needed investment: making all the vacant lots look like part of the neighborhood again.

“Hey,” she says, “greenery is better than this. I had a period there where I said, ‘I don’t know if we can fix this,’ but now I feel hopeful. We’ve got Barack in there. And really: Cleveland is a strong city with a lot of people who believe in partnerships. I have to hang my hat on the belief that we can get through this.”

The city of Cleveland already has a land bank, started more than a decade ago and bolstered recently by about $11 million in the last round of federal stimulus. It’s more than doubling the number of demolitions this year, giving the CDCs hope of more seeds than they’ve seen before. The foundations are concentrating their dollars on neighborhood development too. In total, Cleveland has gotten about half of the $47.9 million in state and federal stimulus funding that’s come so far for foreclosure remediation. And for good reason.

All the county’s municipalities started using the money in February, mostly for demolition but also for larger loans for redevelopment and for $40,000 forgivable loans for families to buy foreclosed homes.

The county land bank, modeled after a successful program in Flint, Michigan, is designed to bring regional coordination to this effort, giving the county many of the same tools in the suburbs that the city currently has. Its main goal, according to a discussion paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, is “to focus on the conversion of vacant, abandoned and tax delinquent properties into productive use.”

County planners could have started in all areas immediately, but they decided to focus first on Cleveland’s two most devastated areas — Glenville and Slavic Village — where redevelopment will most likely mean gardens and trees. Then they’ll branch out.

“Every house that’s gone dark now is not going to be repopulated,” says Rokakis. “But also, we’ve got to save who’s still in these houses now and educate — or after all of them are stripped out, we can get them ready for the demo list too.”

About 30,000 homes in the region that are funded by a mortgage about to explode were just sent educational letters, urging the homeowners to seek the better deal that thousands of mortgage buyers have gotten in the past several years through advocacy groups and court intervention.

Though he’s open to donations from the public and foundation support, Rokakis hopes market forces will balloon the size of the pot — both its money and properties — which would facilitate faster development deals on bigger and bigger lots. He believes the bank will bloom to as large as $4 million soon, once it starts scooping up all the unpaid property taxes on foreclosed properties. After that, he says, “We’re going to the bond market this summer and borrow as much as we can.”

And he wants to flip the flippers, speculators who buy distressed properties to quickly sell them for profit.

“We want to intercede between the financial institutions and the next round of flippers,” he says. The banks had already brought him about 550 properties by the time we spoke a few weeks ago. “As far as I’m concerned, they need to give them all to us. Most just need to be torn down anyway.”

And since it’s dealing with thousands of owners now, the slow growth of assets in the land bank that will take place on the regional level will allow oversight that’s been absent for too long.

“It’s an esoteric thing, a land bank,” says Rokakis. “Getting a clean title, as opposed to a toxic title, can sometimes be all you need to make a difference.”

Most of the land bank’s cash will go toward demo. But Rokakis says it will also, on a broader level, seek to educate people and to reform lending practices, as well as reposition property for a myriad of view-improving uses. That’s next.

“If we don’t get them down, what are they going to be? Movie sets?” he wonders aloud. “Just leave them up for the people who’re left … to watch their property values shrink to nothing?”

But he’s under no illusions. Demos cost about $10,000 apiece; renovations — for areas not envisioned as future pocket parks, gardens or parking lots — cost a lot more. For just demo, there’s about $150 million of work to do countywide.

Through the drizzle, two teens in white Ts approach a reporter taking notes in a car. Thanks, but no thanks. Then, up the block and just around the corner on Oakview, there’s an elderly woman who just tore up all the bug-strewn sod and planted new seed for spring. Yeah, she knows about the drug boys. And she says she knows about the people who look like me they bring around too. But she’s most concerned about the other eyesores. Standing on the front porch, out of the rain, she leans on her hoe and laments the way things have gone on the street where she’s lived for 48 years.

“It’s all naked now,” she says, pointing out the holes in the horizon. “Something needs to be done. Maybe they’ll put in some more gardens.” What about her? I tell her about the land banks, all the stimulus money. “Well, I agree with that. Bring it in. I’m gonna die here; I’m 78 years old. But I can only do this.” She points at her patch of dirt.

It’s better now than when husks of houses were standing in all those places. She points to three different lots that appeared in recent years. There aren’t many empty homes on this little section of street. The city has already torn down the long-vacant ones. She wonders what they’ll do with the lots.

By 2019, maybe sooner, she could have an answer. That’s the goal of numerous planners, thanks to David Abbott, executive director of the Gund Foundation, who’s recently pushed forward the idea of a decade-long recovery, followed by an immeasurable period of growth and grit. The planning is already done for the housing-crisis end of that transformation, anyway, so much that Neighborhood Progress, with funding from the Surdna Foundation in New York, has just released “Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland,” a 35-page report that illustrates the ease with which municipalities can fill in all their holes, money provided. The report, crafted by 35 of the city’s best planners, contains a slew of suggestions, one to fit just about every crusted cranny. And almost every wallet.

The core development areas are quickly identified; the rest of the report deals with everywhere else: community garden support; tiny little parks on more corners; Metroparks gifting; ecosystem improvement; naturally landscaped bio-swales for clean drainage; geothermal energy plants; urban farms and retail-oriented parking spaces. An orchard will soon bloom in the Detroit-Shoreway and Old Brooklyn neighborhoods.

“It should be our goal to create a new kind of city for Cleveland — a city that is sustainable, that works for everybody and especially one that’s tackled its environmental issues,” says Bobbi Reichtell, senior vice president for programs at Neighborhood Progress. “So I’m thinking of this as a 10-year initiative. The first step is to see what works and what doesn’t, and then we figure out how to bring it to scale. And for old industrial cities like Cleveland that have really built the wealth of this country for the last 100 years, there needs to be a federal response.”

A large one is anticipated if it costs $150 million just to erase the board.

“The number of vacant lots is only going to skyrocket now,” says Reichtell. “But with the county land bank, a lot of those will be put back on the market.” The land bank “takes properties with value and potential to be redeveloped and sells them, and grows the bank.”

That, in turn, means more opportunities to re-imagine the urban outback.

“We were surprised at the openness and receptivity of this idea, and think that’s because we weren’t just looking at, ‘What are we going to do with this vacant land?'” says Reichtell. “It puts forward a vision that’s very exciting, that looks at sustainable ecosystems, opportunities for energy generation, food production — for making Cleveland a little more holistic in its land use.”

Cleveland’s already ranked No. 2 in the country for its local food movement and the variety of community and market gardens. Reichtell says an application process has already begun to select $500,000 worth of pilot projects. She’s talking about an urban farm incubator, more gardens, playgrounds and rainwater capturing. Bigger lot sizes and better footprints.

“Here’s the challenge,” says Reichtell. “We need to raise money to create a green infrastructure in Cleveland. A lot of people can reach an agreement on, ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do,’ and be excited about their vision. But it comes down to how we’re going to fund these things.”

Applications for pilot projects are now being accepted at Neighborhood Progress. The organization’s goal is to raise $1 million dollars in the first 18-month period. Since the county commissioners just sent away a billion dollars for a downtown convention center, a county sales tax is probably out of the question. So the county land bank is also accepting applications for support. “It’s still unclear how generous that response will be,” says Reichtell.

Terry Schwarz, senior planner in charge of vacant land work at Kent State’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, says the only fault of the “Reimagining” report, which she had a hand in crafting, is its focus on Cleveland to the exclusion of the outlying areas. But everything else is spot-on, in her estimation.

“Nothing’s ever easy,” she says. “It’s not a plan for every vacant site in the city, but it’s a decisive framework.” If somebody wants to put a townhouse in the wrong place — “and frankly we’ve done that,” says Schwarz — there’s now a database to consult to show why that’s a bad idea. The same goes for farms and gardens.

“The report is a framework for getting a return, whether that’s an economic return or public-health benefit,” she says. “It’s not about big- government intervention, where we’re just paying for 3,300 vacant acres. It’s a public intervention, grabbing vacant land and returning it to productive use.”

And she doesn’t think money will be a barrier: “If we implement this process correctly, the vacant land strategy, we’ll be providing real economic benefits to the city and the region.”

That’s how the county’s development director Paul Oyaski is thinking these days too. It’s hard to find someone with a government job who’s willing to say they’re skeptical, even though only enough money has been promised to start something, not to finish it. But the land bank will be a bigger hammer to wield in the fight.

“There’s not so much a question of authority now, because it’s a corporation that can do just about anything else any other corporation can do in terms of buying, selling, holding and demoing property,” says Oyaski. “So, to me the central question is how to use limited resources to have the maximum impact.”

The bank itself, the first in Ohio, is on a probationary period too. After two years, it has to show measurable successes, as the one in Flint has. So the bank is in Glenville and Slavic Village now, hawking for properties to scoop up and demo, or scoop up and fix. And then, maybe, a new Cleveland will blossom from the cracks.

“Each property has its own story and its own potential,” says Oyaski, who walked his ward to win a seat on Euclid City Council in 1977 and remembers maybe one vacancy a street. Now there’s five, six, seven …

So many stories lost. So many left to write.