Vacant land revitalization efforts in Cleveland, Ohio

By Tim Dehm, M.R.P./M.L.A. ’21

land conservancy stewardship visit

Tim Dehm (M.R.P./M.L.A. ’21) shadowing land conservancy steward

Last summer, I was an intern for Thriving Communities, a project of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, whose efforts have focused on blight removal in Cleveland and other urban centers throughout Ohio.

My primary task was to develop a strategy for vacant land repurposing throughout Cleveland and consider how vacant lots should be managed after blighted structures have been removed. The approach needed to take into account the scale of vacant lots in Cleveland—more than 30,000 residential parcels—and address the economic, environmental, and social needs of the neighborhood. Through dozens of interviews with people whose work in government, non-profits, or in the private sector touched vacant land, I learned what to focus on.

people picking up garbage from a grassy area

Landfill clean up event

I also had the opportunity to work with a community development corporation, the County Land Bank, the council member’s office, and neighbors to repurpose several vacant lots in Slavic Village into a community space. This experience grounded a lot of the information I was gathering from interviews and gave me a real sense of what it takes to design and maintain just two lots.

On the days I wasn’t biking from interview to interview, I was able to volunteer at a few events hosted by the conservancy. I helped clean up an old landfill that the conservancy acquired and plans to turn into a park, and a few weeks later I facilitated a conversation between residents on the same landfill during a city-wide event called Common Ground. One day I shadowed one of the Conservancy’s land stewards, and another I walked the streets of Lorain surveying properties. Sometimes I would get tours of neighborhoods from long-time community organizers.

Through this experience, I’ve glimpsed the intricacies of planning and designing in a legacy city, intricacies that I hope to understand better as my career advances. I’ve also gained an appreciation for the relationship between land and memory, and how conservation of places is often also the conservation of stories, traditions, and the nebulous qualities that make a place feel like home.

Building better flood-resilient housing in Tbong Khmom District in Cambodia, UN Habitat

By Anushi Garg, M.R.P. ’20

For the months of May and June, I was an intern with UN Habitat in a rural district in Cambodia called Tbong Khmom, which is located along the Mekong River. Our field team consisted of two senior colleagues from UN Habitat who are Khmer (Cambodians) along with a team of five architecture students from a local university in Phnom Penh.

The largest issue for the communities in Tbong Khmom is the effects of flooding. Every year during the monsoon, the river levels rise to a height of 1–1 1/2 meters, and although most of houses are built on stilts, the ground floor gets inundated. Residents therefore have to rebuild year after year, forcing them to use all of their savings and keeping them in poverty.

Eight of the poorest and most vulnerable villages in Tbong Khmom were selected for the project, the goal of which was to identify and reconstruct the most vulnerable houses as well as those of families with elder residents, infants, or the disabled.

We first conducted community mobilizing workshops in each of the villages. We held elections and chose a team of representatives to enable better coordination and oversight, and gathered more information about sanitation and living conditions.

The second phase was community mapping. There are no existing maps of the villages in the area and vulnerable houses could not be accurately located. Thus, the aim was to map every house and, building on the knowledge of the elected representatives, we created lists of the families in each household. We used locally available resources to make the maps—ropes, chalk, bottles, plastic, and other materials. The team then walked around each village checking and detailing the new maps. The mapping stage was a great learning experience and engendered a strong sense of democracy and empowerment within the community, especially among the women who emerged significantly more knowledgeable and engaged.

For the next step, the team will design a prototype structure with community input and village-based carpenters will be trained to construct the new houses over the next several months.  

Overall, the internship was an insight into local Khmer culture, resilience, creativity, and strong community. The experience was challenging but also enriching, and introduced me to the relevance of regional planning in rural communities. All major decisions were made in conjunction with the community, which taught me the value of community engagement, and the role of a planner as a facilitator and coordinator.

Natural gas mining promotes agriculture development in rural Pennsylvania

Natural gas mining promotes agriculture development in rural Pennsylvania

In the fall, MRP students accompanied CRP’s Associate Professor of Practice George Frantz in uncovering the land use impacts from natural gas mining in the rural Pennsylvanian agricultural communities of Bradford County. From farmers leasing out parcels of their farmland for drilling, to the state’s substantial impact fees for any form of misconduct committed by the oil industries, Bradford County’s agricultural areas are experiencing new gains in development.

(Image: Grant N. Thompson)

In Bradford County, some natural gas pipeline compressor stations are designed to look like barns. (Image: Grant N. Thompson)

Frantz has been studying this phenomenon since 2008, this journey allowed MRP students to observe how Pennsylvania’s legislation affects mining. For example, unlike many states with natural gas mining operations that allow for compressor stations to be exposed, Pennsylvania mandated that stations match the area’s building typologies. In rural Bradford, the stations masquerade as barns, pictured above and below. The state’s rules also require the compressors’ noise pollution to be minimal.

(Image: Grant N. Thompson)

In Bradford County, some natural gas pipeline compressor stations are designed to look like barns. (Image: Grant N. Thompson)

Joining the team was Avi Gandhi (MRP ’19), who shared her experience below:

“I had heard Bradford County had about two thousand wells and hundreds of drill units, I expected scarring and devastation in the landscape.  What I saw instead was large expanse of family farms, windmills in the distance, species of birds I had not seen before. It was a happy surprise to find that Pennsylvania laws regulating hydraulic fracturing were stringent enough to impose heavy impact fee requirements on energy companies, so that any negative damage caused by fracking had to be paid for by the companies carrying it out. This was evident from the smooth condition of roads leading up to drill sites. We saw impoundment facilities, several well pads, and a compressor station. It was a fun fact that well pads are usually located higher up on hilltops rather than valleys, as the bedrock is closer to the surface. It felt like an expedition where we were on a mission to track down an active site. We didn’t find any, but I learned to look for the right clues.”

Originally planned as a trip to document sites with an active mining rig, this objective went unmet because the team was unable to find any rigs. Nonetheless, this experience allowed for the group to reflect on how the mining practices could be further regulated. As planners, we must acknowledge our responsibility in ensuring that the preservation of the natural landscapes is upheld to the highest standards possible.  For if we do not protect the environment that we live in, how can we ensure that our population flourishes?

Grant N. Thompson (MRP ’19)

(Image: Grant N. Thompson)

Professor George Frantz, left, and MRP students observe a surface water withdrawal system. (Image: Grant N. Thompson)

Minh Tran: Cleveland reflection

The West 25th Furnis storefront. (Image: Minh Tran)

I began the Cleveland field trip with a curiosity to see what a Rust Belt city looks like given its industrial past, and left with questions about the role of historic preservation in both the built environment and the social life of an urban place. The trip introduced me to an industrial landscape which I had never seen so closely before: The boat ride along the river was especially eye-opening, as I was able to experience the “industrial city” with all senses–the smell of the fumes, the color of the water, the sound of the river traffic. So much of Cleveland’s industrial past lives on today, and at the same time so much has changed.

Figure 1 shows the dynamics between past and present, urban and industrial in Cleveland. On one hand, there are  ships used for industrial purposes, there are historical bridges, and a salt plant of great size. On the other, there are the yachts that perhaps belong to an upper class who use the river for pleasure, the big-block, high-rise public housing, as well as the skyline in the background.

City view from the river (Image: Minh Tran)

This picture describes my confused first impression of Cleveland. Everything on the urban landscape seems fragmented and spread out; a neighborhood somehow did not have the feel of a neighborhood. As we drove through Slavic Village, a disinvested area on the West Side, I could see little connection between the first few blocks of the residential area we saw when leaving the river port and the site where [Slavic Village’s] Third Federal Bank is located adjacent to a strip mall. However, it makes more sense when Cleveland’s history—its industrial peak and decline, housing crisis, and racial segregation—is considered. As we learned about the work of various agencies within the city, I developed a better understanding of how this landscape came to be.

Here’s a question that stuck with me through our three-day Cleveland journey: How should cities approach historic preservation? In particular, I was extremely interested in the preservationist approach to downtown Cleveland as we walked through the beautiful arcades, banks, and streets born in previous decades. The human effort and financial resources that goes into preservation of the past really impressed me. Entering the magnificent arcades made me feel as though time stood still inside these buildings, as though this part of Cleveland remained in place as the world moved on.

(Image: Minh Tran)

At the same time, I was struck by how empty, how lifeless the streets felt here. As we walked from 9 a.m. until noon, I counted only a few people walking the streets. As the tour guide said, the hotels are doing well but the stores are not, suggesting again that local people do not frequent these spaces. If there’s so much investment downtown, why are the streets so empty? How does historic preservation contribute (or not) to this lack of public life that I saw and experienced? Is it because the monumental, ornamented architecture of the past lacks the human scale often seen in other more vibrant downtowns, and the stores are inside, instead lining the sidewalks? If so, to what extent should we preserve historic structures? To what extent should we reconstruct and bring back the past? Where is the balance between historic preservation and contemporary development, and how does it impact the urban landscape and life?

As we approached downtown’s Erieview area and the Mall, new developments take over. Urban renewal in Cleveland as well as in many other places tore down existing communities without resources for replacement. As a result, these areas became placeholders for today’s development. As we walked Superior Avenue, instead of the historic arcades, I saw a much more modern landscape, with taller buildings and wider streets. Not much of the past remains. Again, there were not many people on the streets, perhaps besides one person sleeping on the corner. As we were crossing the street, a policeman approached the man and asked him to move. Again, the experience in downtown Cleveland really made me ask–in between the development of today and preservation of the past, who is the city built for?

My last picture raises questions and perhaps hope about the future of Cleveland. Right next to our hostel is an abandoned building labelled West 25th Furnis (pictured at top). A quick Google search tells me that it was once a grocery store that complemented the adjacent West Side Market. The building then housed a furniture store, and it is now vacant. The value of the prime location at the corner of two streets, however, has not been forgotten. On both sides of the building there are murals that speak to the spirit of the city, which attract tourists and locals alike to come and take pictures. What is usually not captured in their photos, though, is the dilapidated structure above it, a place where locals once came to do their grocery or furniture shopping. Can Cleveland move forward by putting the past in the background and foreground new developments through its tax abatement program? What will be the next use of the building? What future awaits Cleveland?

Minh Tran, MRP 2020

Joel Hochman: Cleveland reflection

Although industry is in decline, it is still present in Cleveland. This is the ArcelorMittal steel mill. (Image: Joel Hochman)

When we were informed that our cohort was headed to Cleveland, I was pleased; I had never been to Cleveland and had spent almost no time in the Rust Belt. I felt it was important to see a city so different from my hometown, New York City. Given all the contemporary discussion about New York’s role in global capitalism, I felt it necessary to examine a city left behind by the very same force.

Severance Hall, home of The Cleveland Orchestra. (Image: Joel Hochman)

From the Daniel Burnham, John Carrère, and Arnold Brunner–designed Cleveland Mall to the highways crisscrossing the central core, Cleveland’s built environment seemed to reflect so many of the trends that characterized American urban planning. I saw a quintessentially American city, one where investment so starkly reflected the stages of American capitalism. As we drove through Slavic Village and later through University Circle, or as we walked through the empty streets of downtown Cleveland and the magnificent cavernous banking cathedrals off Euclid Avenue, all I could think about was David Harvey’s theory of accumulation and David Gordon’s “Capitalist Development and the History of American Cities.” As a center of American industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Cleveland was showered with investment into the built environment. Cleveland’s “Industrial City” phase was visible in the housing stock in Slavic Village near the factory sites. The skyscrapers surrounding Public Square and throughout the central core reflected Cleveland’s transformation into the “Corporate City.” Applying Harvey’s theoretical model, I saw Cleveland as fundamentally stuck with a built environment for production in an environment that no longer valued industrial production. Cleveland is a city of almost 400,000 built for nearly a million inhabitants. Much of its remaining capital has been siphoned off into the periphery or out of the industrial Midwest entirely. There can’t be an honest discussion about Cleveland’s unless these uncomfortable facts about its past and present are acknowledged.

An empty Cleveland Mall on Friday during lunchtime (Image: Joel Hochman)

Cleveland made me sad and angry, because the cityscape manifested everything unfair, vicious, and violent about American capitalism: Empty streets. Plazas hardly filled. No people. I saw a ghost town, ruthlessly abandoned by capital in the race for the bottom. I saw the poor fending for themselves in a subpar, underfunded public transit system. I witnessed white suburbanites coming into town for The Cleveland Orchestra and then fleeing back to the suburbs after the performance. The growth and prosperity we did see in University Circle and Ohio City was so limited in geographical scope and target audience that it was hard to view it as a bright spot. It was merely emblematic of entrenched inequality and the struggle for the city to find meaning post-industrialization. I was not inspired by the panel discussion on foundations, and found the observation about Cleveland becoming the next Austin, Texas due to climate change–induced migration somewhat insensitive and delusional.

Once home to Union Trust, this was the largest bank lobby in the world. Now it’s a wedding venue. (Image: Joel Hochman)

That said, I don’t think all is lost. It was apparent throughout the trip that many Clevelanders refuse to give up on their city. Hope remains due to the hard work of community-based organizations, grassroots organizing, and true civic engagement, none of which are in short supply in town. Meaning won’t come just from eds and meds and their multiplier effect; new meaning for a new Cleveland will come about if the necessary coalitions form to address and tackle issues of inequality and wealth redistribution. This is where I see the planning profession as essential: as facilitators and builders of community. Folks like Mordechai from Saturday’s panel, and others who do their work outside of the formal nonprofit framework, can provide great insight into what makes their community prosper. I hope to return to Cleveland one day to visit and to see this in action.

Joel Hochman, MRP 2020

Jon Ignatowski: Cleveland reflection

A new mural in Ohio City: public art, or manufactured culture to entice more well-off residents? (Image: Jon Ignatowski)

Our explorations of Cleveland poignantly substantiated the readings for the trip and laid bare the network of values and power dynamics that shape the physical dimensions of the city. As we walked through newly developed portions of the city center, such as the theater district and the recently renovated arcades, one question loomed larger and larger: Whom is Cleveland for? In Cleveland: A Metropolitain Reader, David C Perry argues that Cleveland was founded on speculation and quick profits, and those dynamics are seemingly alive and well today. As Pierre Clavel examines in The Progressive City, development can either manifest as structures or as services for the people, and any casual observer can see, by the monolithic new buildings and poor segregated communities, that development in Cleveland is certainly the former. As Norman Krumholz and John Forester illustrate in Making Equity Planning Work, it is exceedingly difficult to implement long term planning when politics favor short term projects that create political appeal, while long term projects, especially service projects, have little marketable qualities and minimal political advantage. It is evident that Cleveland has espoused a pro-growth attitude, growth dictated by the business elites, growth at the expense of the disadvantaged city citizens, growth that does little to improve the equity in downtown Cleveland.

Public housing adjacent to a gravel yard for a cement plant, a poignant example of inequities in Cleveland’s land use patterns. (Image: Jon Ignatowski)

Our walking tours clearly illustrated this dynamic. New high rises supported by tax abatements intended to serve the business class abounded; while new mixed-use residential (again, supported by tax abatements) were intended to attract the creative class, a.k.a Millennials with money. All the recent historical preservation projects, meant to kickstart the downtown business sector, smacked of wealth and classicism. I felt that is was somewhat ironic that the structures receiving the most financial support and veneration were structures of the Gilded Age, a time when elites flaunted their prolific wealth and the rights of the working poor were trampled. Are these Gilded Age relics not of the same ilk as the Robert E. Lee statues of the South, symbols of oppression? Indeed, walking through the cavernous halls of Union Trust, a bank that actively suppressed financial support to disadvantaged communities, I could not help asking myself: To what end are we preserving and celebrating these buildings?

The palatial lobby of Cleveland Arcade (left) and the Union Trust (right): Are these historical structures to venerate, or symbols of oppression? (Image: Jon Ignatowski)

Are the ornate lobbies of the Union Trust and the Cleveland Arcade historical structures to venerate or symbols of oppression? It was not hard to miss the speculative atmosphere in the downtown district–rebuilt facades, palatial office buildings, and a new entertainment district–all coalesced into a general feeling of synthetic culture, culture created by the monied class to attract more of the monied class. This was not a space created by the people, but a space contrived for the people, a business scheme shrouded by a thin veil of community and neighborhood vitality. It was contrivance for profitable ends, and it was evident, by a general assessment of the demographics of those streets, that the growth locus of Cleveland is not meant for the people of Cleveland, but just as another colonial enterprise of the wealthy suburbanites, saddling the city with even more financial obligations in pursuit of benefits that may never materialize. However, if Cleveland wants to grow, what choice does it have in a capitalistic system? If the trend is to flee the city, then the only means of staunching that flow, if not reversing it, is to incentivize development through financial means. In a society governed primarily by our pocketbooks, this investment could not occur strictly as a moral imperative. In other words, investments are not going to return to the city because it’s the right thing to do, rather, it will return because it is the profitable thing to do. However, in capitalistic system where there are winners and losers, the inner-city development catalyzed by generous tax abatements ensures that the losers are those that are already losing. And even if Cleveland manages to create enough momentum where current investments trigger new investments, will it have the capacity and political will to harness the revenue-generating capacities of this growth? With the business class in command of the government, it is safe to conclude that rulers taxing themselves is a dubious proposition. These capitalistic forces hinder even the most noble of efforts to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. Speaking with the members of different CDCs attempting to improve the conditions of the underserved, it was clear that they are operating within a paradox they don’t have the means of solving. By targeting the most underserved for financial support, by improving the physical conditions of neighborhoods, the CDCs are certainly meeting their goal of improving the quality of life for those in those neighborhoods, but a question that not a single member could answer were the long-term prospects of these wealth-building mechanisms. If property values rose over time, affordability would decrease, pushing low-income people into underdeveloped, underserved communities. The apparent inextricable link between community health and property value ensures that investments in a community will ultimately force those residents out if their income-generating capabilities are not improved. If capitalistic forces continue to predominate, the plight of the marginalized do not stand a chance since they neither offer any financial gain to businesses, significant political gain for politicians, or gains to wealthy in suburban areas. The ruling class has a vested interest in suppressing the working class to preserve what is profitable. Cleveland is a city for the elites, and it has a long, tumultuous period of soul-searching ahead before equity is even invited to the planning table.

Jon Ignatowski, MRP 2020

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