Saturday, February 25, 2012

Urban Prairies

Two cities with the same problem: urban decay. Detroit has taken the headlines with it's precipitous decline into urban awfulness, but Chicago and Buffalo have their own problems. With jobs disappearing and no effort made to replace them, witness the cuts up to 35,000 people by the Post Office, urban decay is bound to spread. Tax cuts have not produced work and protectionism is still a dirty word. Despair out to be the dirtiest word of all.


It’s leap year 2012, a time to take a leap forward to look at the challenge Chicago faces in the future of developing its vast supply of vacant land.

One of the great questions Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces is what to do with the ever-growing real estate wilderness — Chicago’s vacant lots.

The city of Chicago estimates there are currently about 10,000 vacant lots on the South Side — most of them stretching from McCormick Place around 22nd Street to Hyde Park and from Lake Michigan deep into Englewood. Thousands more vacant parcels can be found on the city’s West Side.

However, William Lavicka, a master preservationist who heads Historic Boulevard Services, believes the city’s land bank may contain more than 50,000 lots when both city-owned and privately owned vacant property on the South and West sides are taken into account.

Lavicka says city blocks ravaged by teardowns look like “a mouth with missing teeth.” If these properties could somehow be resurrected from the deep, dark fiscal hole of delinquency and put back on the active real estate tax rolls, then tens of millions of dollars in new revenue could be injected into the city budget.

Urban pioneer Lavicka, a tough, innovative guy who served in the Seabees during the Vietnam War, is still telling war stories about his adventures renovating abandoned properties on the Near West Side for the past 35 years.

In 2010, while renovating the Gut Heil Haus, a turn-of-the-century fortress-like building that formerly was a German Social and Athletic Club at 2431 W. Roosevelt Rd., Lavicka slept in the property at night armed with a baseball bat and a shotgun to guard its beautiful interior appointments.

The renovation of the old West Side German beer hall is just one of dozens of vintage properties Lavicka personally saved from the wrecking ball while serving as an urban commando.

His swashbuckling victories against the urban pirates range from helping save a row of mansions along the 1500 block of West Jackson Boulevard and obtaining landmark designation and listing on the National Register of Historic Places, to the spirited renovation of a dozen churches, including the Church of the Epiphany on Ashland and Adams.

These works of renovation and art are just a few of dozens lovingly outlined in “Urban Structure,” a self-published book authored by Lavicka to remember his life’s work in words and pictures accomplished over the past four decades. The book, completed while Lavicka struggled to recover from illness, is an amazing record of accomplishments by a creative and tenacious man.

Meanwhile, hundreds of properties are being deposited every month into the city’s land bank by foreclosure-minded mortgage companies and banks who are seeking to rid their books of delinquent homes and apartments.

The process typically starts with abandonment, boarding up, and then foreclosure. But the blight and foreclosed properties are far from forgotten by the neighbors and the community.

With no hope for a resale to recoup the investment, the banker’s neglect results in abandonment of the property. The weeds grow, the windows are smashed, and the building becomes an unsafe place for homeless people to squat, a drug house, or the site of a fire.

Eventually, this scenario forces the city to raze the property and reduce the bank’s real estate tax classification from improved property to vacant land, which is taxed at a much lower level. Often the land is just donated to the city for back taxes, or picked up in the tax scavenger sale.

Typically, the abandoned building also becomes a resource for Chicago’s underground economy and is stripped of its valuable appliances, furnaces, light fixtures, copper pipe and electrical wire. Often, the urban pirates even take the hardwood floors, fireplace mantels and doors.

Even if an investor buys the abandoned building, secures it with guard dogs to protect the building’s improvements and begins to renovate the property, it sometimes isn’t a happy ending. It is not uncommon for the dogs to be poisoned and killed by the urban pirates to scavenge the profits within.

Maybe Mayor Emanuel should put Lavicka, a champion of preservation, in charge of policing the city’s junkyard of abandoned buildings.


Following 60 years of economic decline and the loss of nearly 319,00 residents the City of Buffalo is now in the unenviable position of owning thousands of vacant residential and commercial properties. The City's housing vacancy rate has climbed from 4.4 percent in 1970 to 17.2 percent by 2010. Much of the urban landscape is now in decay and once vibrant neighborhoods are approaching extinction and others are at risk to follow suit.

The likelihood over the next couple decades of Buffalo regaining its population level of 580,000 residents in 1950 is remote. Under that premise what is the best strategy to proceed with the goal of fostering economic and population growth by reclaiming Buffalo's distressed neighborhoods? The political solution seems to favor mass demolition. This approach is well documented in other U.S. cities where massive demolitions have failed to yield substantial private reinvestment and community revitalization. Mass demolitions result in the loss of valuable housing stock, create voids in a neighborhood's urban fabric, further depress property values and promote continued population exodus and urban sprawl.

Buffalo's demolition plan is aimed at razing 5,000 structures in five years. At a reported cost of $100 million the demolition plan will average $20,000 per structure. These funds could be used to rebuild rather than destroy. With the demolition of each structure the city losses a bit of its history and a link with the past is forever erased. In an era of generic urban landscapes, Buffalo possesses such remarkable assets as unique architecture, history, art and culture. These community assets create a true sense of place and if properly nurtured could serve as the building block for the stabilization and future revitalization of distressed neighborhoods. Buffalo's architectural treasures have already yielded notable revitalization efforts in the CBD.
Alone, the City's demolition of 5,000 structures will only further perpetuate community disinvestment, urban sprawl, population loss and neighborhood decline. Under this program as building after building has been razed the political justification has focused on alleged progress and the need for derelict buildings to come down for new ones to take their place. The flaw in this logic is that property values and rents in the impacted neighborhoods are far too low to warrant financially feasible private investment. Attracting private investment to redevelop the large inventory of vacant lots left behind will require substantial public incentives beyond the cost of demolition. Reinvestment in a significant portion of the City-owned property inventory could come at a far lower cost and yield much greater results.

What is required to resurrect Buffalo's distressed neighborhoods is a multi-prong revitalization strategy. Demolition can be a component of the revitalization process, but by no means the cornerstone.

Promoting home ownership should be a primary goal in stabilizing and revitalizing distressed neighborhoods. Many City-owned homes are structurally sound and are worth saving. The smaller homes are ideal for first-time buyers. Investing in the existing housing stock would be far less costly that funding demolition and financial incentives necessary to spur private investment. Demolition funds could be reallocated to bring homes to inhabitable standards by funding such structural improvements as a new roof, windows and utilities. The revitalized homes would then be sold to first-time home buyers, strengthening neighborhoods, creating home owner equity, improving quality of life and enhancing the City's tax base. Not for profit organizations have proven the worth of saving and rehabilitating homes slated for demolition.

Public sector investment is critical. Demolition should be selective and accompanied by public investment in neighborhood parks and the reconstruction of streets, sideways and public utilities. The City could team with local banks and mortgage lenders to offer mortgage financing or establish a revolving fund for City-owned properties slated for sale. These efforts would assist in stabilizing the surrounding housing stock and the rehabilitation of other City-owned properties.

The City must stem demolition through neglect by aggressively prosecuting those property owners who refuse to maintain and invest in their properties. Emergency demolitions should be avoidable and must be a last resort.

New construction should be urban in scale and design. Too much new construction has taken a suburban-style form which deflates the City's unique urban character.

Shovel ready sites should only be created when actual market demand dictates. The demolition of properties anywhere in the City should not be permitted without a concrete redevelopment plan that includes architectural drawings, City review and approval, and financing and tenant commitments.

The depopulation of distressed neighborhoods has resulted in the deterioration of the local business community. Fostering small business will require both population and income growth. Concentrated efforts in targeted neighborhoods to rehab the housing stock, invest in public infrastructure and selected demolition are necessary steps in the eventual rebirth of both residential neighborhoods and business districts. Mass demolitions, on the other hand, will result in portions of Buffalo being transformed into urban prairies that will likely remain so for many years to come.

No comments: