Saving the Neighborhood

How Preservation and Blight Intervention Work Together to Foster Liveable Communities

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Anne Russett is a planner for the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Jeff Hintz is a planner for the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Cynthia Winland is director of strategic priorities for the Delta Institute.

Posted: Tuesday, October 27, 2015 3:22 pm

Whether to demolish or preserve buildings damaged by disaster or neglect is a hard choice many cities face. If left alone, abandoned buildings can spread a contagion of blight throughout a community. But if a building is historic and able to be renovated, relocated or salvaged for materials, cities have some direction on how to proceed.

That is why historic preservation planning can be a key component of growing sustainable communities and preventing or eliminating blight.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recurrent damaging floods have transformed entire neighborhoods from vibrant communities to huge demolition jobs. Historic preservation is a fundamental part of a comprehensive approach to sustainability, according to Cedar Rapids city planners Anne Russett and Jeff Hintz. They are working to develop the city's historic preservation plan to preserve local landmarks and promote environmental, cultural and social sustainability.

Flooding has been a challenge to historic preservation in Cedar Rapids, Russett said, and in 2008, a flood cresting at over 31 feet affected more than 10 square miles of the city. More than 1,000 city blocks were impacted, of which 561 were considered severely damaged. In human terms, an estimated 10,000 residents were displaced by the flood. City planners had to figure out how to rebuild their town, not just as it was, Hintz said, but better. They are continuing work to rebuild city facilities, reinvest in neighborhoods that were deteriorating even before the flood, and of course, redesigning the riverfront so that rising flood waters do limited damage in the future.

A map of the Flood Control System Alignment and of historic properties in Cedar Rapids shows a high degree of overlap.

“Planners have to balance conflicting goals,” Russett said. “We need to protect the city from floods but also preserve our historic buildings.”

One part of the plan is that instead of property owners demolishing buildings at will, the Historic Preservation Commission gets 60 days to review demolition requests on primary structures that at least 50 years old. They can then suggest an appropriate fate for the structure depending on its viability.

Education is key to implementing the historic preservation plan, Hintz said, because “we need to create a culture of preservation.”

One way to do this is to update the city’s zoning codes to include reviews for impediments to historic preservation, to explore the creation of neighborhood conservation districts and to consider adaptive re-use of functionally obsolete structures. An update of the city’s historic preservation code and design guidelines could address energy efficiency issues, such as solar panels and minimum maintenance code requirements within local historic districts, Hintz said.

Some success stories include the rehabilitated historic structures in what is known as New Bohemia, or NewBo. This area of the city had fallen on hard times in recent years, and the 2008 floods nearly wiped it out. Now, it houses a popular farmers market and other magnets for businesses and their customers. Many of its historic structures were rehabilitated to make this happen, Russett said, due to the investment of private property owners.

Another example is the Commonwealth Hotel, which was built in 1925 as an extended-stay hotel but will be restored as senior housing, Russett said. The city also is focused on social and cultural sustainability, Russett said. They worked to restore a traditionally African American church and a mosque, both of which are in historic structures that benefited from restoration.

It isn’t always easy to convince the community of the value of historic preservation, Russett said, since “some in the public don’t want the city to invest more money into buildings that are deteriorating, while others see value in preserving parts of the city’s history.”

Cedar Rapids is finding ways for historic preservation to be in the conversation, even as flood control measures designed to protect them might mean a building needs to be relocated out of the river’s reach.

Other cities face challenges not directly posed by Mother Nature. Cynthia Winland, director of strategic priorities for the Delta Institute, is an urban planner who has helped cities in the Great Lakes region that have transitioned away from the industrial economy that often left historic neighborhoods uninhabitable. Delta works in partnership with business, government and communities to create and implement innovative, market-driven solutions that build environmental resilience, economic vitality and healthy communities.

Winland works on blight intervention, mostly in residential structures but sometimes in commercial and industrial settings. Her recent focus is on finding ways to recover lumber and other reusable materials from structures that must be demolished. She is tuned in to how deteriorating residences affect the way people think and feel about their neighborhoods. However, not everyone defines blight the same way. She points out that one person’s messy front porch is another person’s blight.

“We look at blight as something ‘over there,’” she said. “We might say, ‘Boy that looks bad, that doesn’t look safe, it is a shame they have to live there, how come street lights don’t work over there.’”

Emphasizing the words “over there” indicate that blight is often thought to be somebody else’s problem, she said.

Instead, there are a variety of definitions of blight, Winland said. Is it a question of a building’s appearance? Is it a matter of safety? Is it blight if too many properties are held by renters rather than as single-family dwellings? Is it blight if people who live in the homes have stopped paying taxes?

The common good is the bellwether of all planners, Winland said, and “if you want the common good to prevail, then you should make all decisions in a public transparent place.

“Make sure people who’ve sent in complaints about blight are in the room,” she said, since they can help identify existing conditions of structures and density of blight. This is the first of many steps toward resolving blight by being proactive and deliberate, rather than in a disorganized rush.

Detroit, Mich., is an example of a city that is becoming proactive and deliberate in dealing with urban blight, she said, although it did not always approach the problem in that manner. Part of the problem is that Detroit is the largest city in the United States, geographically. Properties were being demolished in an ad hoc way, with the result being a “swiss cheese” neighborhood, Winland said. There might be a few blocks with almost no blighted properties, yet a mile away, other blocks might have only one or two houses left standing.

The city decided it would be better, although much slower, to demolish in segments and decide what properties to remove. Whether blight is decay due to neglect or age, or the result of a neighborhood falling apart as city services deteriorate, or simply the feeling of a neighborhood having seen better days, it can be quantified and mapped.

In one mapping project in Detroit, 375,000 properties were surveyed. In many of these areas, the gas might still be on, but mail delivery has ceased, along with street plowing and city bus service, Winland said. Community volunteers were sent out with clipboards and pens to fill out forms covering 17 features of properties. A home that cannot be secured with a lock was a top indicator of trouble. It might have a working front door but if windows are missing and the house stands open, that could be a sign it should be demolished rather than renovated.

Indicators of impending blight can also be measured on a whole block basis, Winland said, rather than by looking at individual properties. Indicators include two or more vacant or boarded up houses; two or more years of unpaid taxes on any structure; a lack of structural maintenance; crime within usable structures; or any combination of these indicators.

Detroit wanted to look at whether to demolish or deconstruct various properties, Winland said.

“Let’s think strategically about what has value,” she said. “Let’s look at assets, like old growth lumber reclamation, leaded glass, brick. Is there a market for these items salvaged from properties and is it worth shipping.”

Detroit had a strong market for these reclaimed materials in the Chicago area, so in that case, the answer was yes.

At the same time, communities wondered why they should bother with this slow deconstruction process. Compared to demolition, Winland said, “deconstruction is a tool to create jobs, reclaim valuable material and create open space. You may have the opportunity to transform vacant and abandoned houses from a liability to an asset.”

There are many more economic, environmental and social benefits of deconstruction compared to demolition, Winland said. But in the case of demolition, the question of what to do with the vacant land must be answered. She has seen interim uses include community gardens, parking lot construction, recreation space, pop up art, and retail. More permanent uses include green infrastructure projects and gifting to neighboring jurisdictions or conservation organizations.

For example, Gary, Ind., has a vacant land strategy that capitalizes on its Indiana Dunes State Park and National Lakeshore. Conservation groups came together and turned blighted land into conservation land, Winland said.

While Winland thinks that the deliberate, proactive approach is the best way to tackle blight, she acknowledges objections. It is true that people may feel displaced or targeted, she said. Land might sit idle for a long time, giving people the impression that there is no plan. The municipality still has to incur maintenance costs during the planning process. Finally, it can look or act like urban renewal, she said, which means neighborhoods are being selected for success or demolition depending on seemingly arbitrary reasons, which can harm some groups.

On the other hand, she said, some areas do improve, some blight is removed and the municipality can eventually redirect its resources.

“We have become better at avoiding and predicting blight,” she said.

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