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All the vacant lots in Cleveland could cover 3 airports

Ron Brown of Cleveland gestures toward a large vacant parcel on Cleveland's East Side.
Justin Glanville
Ideastream Public Media
Ron Brown gestures toward a large vacant parcel next to his house on Cleveland's East Side. He'd like to take ownership of the lot as a side yard, but the city has earmarked it for residential redevelopment.

When Alyssa Hernandez moved from Florida to Cleveland to become the city’s director of community development, she was told the city managed more than 18,000 vacant lots — places where houses and businesses stood when Cleveland had more people.

Where she came from in Florida, vacant lots are not an issue. Development is booming and population is growing, so she couldn't put 18,000 lots in context.

"You know, is that a lot? Is that a little? And then the next [thing I was told] was, 'This system operates with a maximum of 5,000 lots,'" she said with a laugh. "I said, 'Oh, so we are well over that amount.'"

In other words: The city can reasonably handle less than a third of the number of lots it actually oversees. Meanwhile, another 12,000 vacant lots are not in the city’s hands at all, because they’re privately owned.

That total of 30,000 vacant lots adds up to 6,000 acres — or one-eighth of Cleveland’s total area. That’s three times the size of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and one and a half times the size of the suburb of Shaker Heights, spread out across city neighborhoods.

The number of lots is also fast-growing, representing a 50 percent increase since 2010.

"So the problem is immense, and it's a super high priority for us," Hernandez said.

Part of the reason it’s a priority, Hernandez said, is that while vacant lots are preferable in some ways to vacant or run-down buildings, they can still be magnets for crime and illegal dumping.

And they can be depressing for neighbors who live nearby, a very visible sign that people are leaving and not coming back.

Obstacles and complexities

City leaders have been grappling with what to do about vacant lots for years now, and there have been some creative reuses of land along the way — including parks that handle stormwater, new playgrounds, even a winery.

But according to Isaac Robb of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the size of the problem and the fact that each empty lot has its own complexities have stood in the way of wide-scale progress.

On a recent drive through Cleveland’s Southeast side — where years of discriminatory lending and depopulation have led to a lot of foreclosure, demolition and empty land — Robb pointed to a large vacant property on a grassy hill, backed by a crumbling brick wall.

Isaac Robb of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy stands on vacant parcels that have been converted to a community garden.
Justin Glanville
Ideastream Public Media
Isaac Robb of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, pictured on a vacant lot-turned-community garden, says dreams of a population rebound in Cleveland have hindered widescale progress.

"This is a pretty significant slope," Robb said. "And so the opportunities for redevelopment would be a challenge. That's a significant amount of geotechnical work to [remove] that retaining wall."

Beyond practical obstacles, Robb cites another reason he believes more hasn’t been done to improve Cleveland’s vacant lots: Residents — and maybe more so, some elected officials — have held tight to the dream of a population rebound. Many, he said, continue to hope Cleveland can get back to or at least back toward its peak population of 900,000 in 1950.

"But really the anomaly, historically, was 1950, when everything was filled in with new homes," Robb said. "So it is changing that mindset that when you look at a vacant lot, the first thing we shouldn't necessarily think of is, ‘Oh, that should be a house.’"

Part of his job at the Conservancy is to track vacant lots. Then he and his colleagues go door-to-door talking to residents and map out potential new uses, including gardens, parks and playgrounds.

In some cases, the Conservancy will also fundraise for those ideas, always an uphill battle. And a frustrating one, Robb said, because the city spends millions of dollars mowing grass on vacant lots every year. He said he can't help but think of the possibilities if that money could be diverted toward building the new houses and parks that residents say they want.

'Give it to me'

On one large empty lot on Woodhill Road, a huge field mower made passes across the grass as Ron Brown, the resident next door, picked up stray pieces of litter.

"They come out to do their part, but we do what we can to make it better for us," Brown said.

When asked what he'd like to see happen with the lot, Brown is quick to answer.

"Give it to me," he said. "I've taken care of it 20 years; give it to me."

Brown said he’s applied to buy the lot as a side yard through a program where for a nominal fee homeowners can buy city-owned lots next door to their houses.

But in an echo of Robb's point about city leaders wanting to boost population, Brown said he’s been told the city is holding this particular lot back for residential redevelopment.

He said he understands redevelopment as a long-term goal, but believes more needs to be done in the meantime. According to property records, the land has now been vacant for more than 20 years.

"If they would put something on it or just maintain it better, put a fence up, keep people from dumping back here, that'll be great," he said. Then he paused and laughed. "Or give it to me. Again."

Scanning for solutions

One city that’s often held up as a shining example of what to do about vacant land is Philadelphia, which has about 40,000 empty lots.

The City of Philadelphia funds the nonprofit Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) not only to mow and clean vacant lots, but to plant trees and build simple wooden fences around the perimeter.

"The fence is important because it shows somebody is caring for the site," said Keith Green, who runs the vacant land program for PHS.

Green said the organization has improved and now manages about a third of Philadelphia’s empty lots. PHS also hires neighborhood residents to landscape and maintain empty lots.

But the deepest impacts, Green said, may be improvements to the safety and well-being of neighbors. Studies by the University of Pennsylvania have shown a 29% decrease in gun violence in neighborhoods where PHS works and a 40% decrease in self-reported feelings of depression.

A photo shows a vacant lot in Philadelphia landscaped and maintained by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
Fences are a key component of treating vacant lots in Philadelphia because they "show someone is caring for the site," according to Keith Green of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

And when researchers attached heart-rate monitors to residents and had them walk by vacant lots, heart rates decreased when the lots had been greened and fenced, whereas when participants walked by vacant lots that hadn't been treated, heart rates rose.

"Think about it: When you have a park in your neighborhood, you tend to relax," Green said. "Compared to when you have something that’s overgrown, you don’t know what’s going on, you get a little nervous."

Another program closer to home is Akron's "Mow to Own" initiative. Residents who mow and maintain a vacant lot for six months can acquire it for free from the city.

'Not where we need to be'

The Philadelphia and Akron programs are among those that Cleveland’s Hernandez said she would study over the next year.

Hernandez aims to hire a new land bank manager — a position that’s been empty for more than a year — by the first quarter of 2023. She'd also like to write and adopt a new plan for responding to the city’s vacant lots by the end of 2023.

"We're certainly not where we need to be," Hernandez said. "But we will be, and I look forward for folks keeping me accountable to that."

But with the backlog of lots continuing to grow, and already past the city’s capacity to handle on its own, Hernandez acknowledged the city will need to find new ways of working with residents and other partners for real progress to be made.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.