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Thread: Vacant buildings or vacant lots?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Vacant buildings or vacant lots?

    A senior planner mused today that it might be better for the long term health of the city to bulldoze and remove all blighted, vacant buildings in the city rather than leave them standing and continue to be a saftey hazard. He noted that the vacant land would hold a lower value than the land with the house on it and eventually land values would get so low (by many blocks being vacant) that land price itself would spur some re-development in the city. The land would not become city owend, but would remain in private ownership.

    I countered that we tried this 30 years ago nationwide and our fair city STILL has vacant lots in the old part of town that are not being redeveloped.

    He also swears that what people really want is their own spaces.. their own yard, and no urban congestion. They don't want a shared park, they want their own little park (backyard). This is why the cities are loosing population again (like SF and BOS).

    So Throbbing BrainTM, what is better for the long term health of a city vacant lots or vacant housing?
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boiker
    So Throbbing BrainTM, what is better for the long term health of a city vacant lots or vacant housing?
    Neither.

    But vacant houses are a major safety hazard when they burn. So, if it were me, I would rather live next to a vacant lot, not a vacant house.

    Those houses might sell if there is a regional housing shortage. How is job growth in your fair region? Probably not that good.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    I would think abandoned houses and blighted structures would create unsafe (from a structural standpoint) as well as a place for street toughs and bad kids to hang out in. I would prefer empty lots. Yes, kids would still hang out there, but there would be more visibility.
    As for people wanting their own land, parklike areas next to their houses, I would disagree. But only in this area of Colorado where I work. Most of my projects with the city involve subdividing a lot in the 'original town', or larger older lots near the downtown, and putting another house or, if the setbacks allow, a duplex on the rear lot. Which I guess is the opposite of what you folks back east deal with, having empty homes/lots remain for years and years.

    Basically more rambling information without a point from the Z Man.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

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    I read an article recently about a grassroots movement of farmers who are tilling the earth in central Detroit, which has a staggering amount of empty land thanks to a highly "successful" demolition program. Can't remember where it was, but you can probably find it (try Planetizen).

    Will

    Quote Originally posted by boiker
    A senior planner mused today that it might be better for the long term health of the city to bulldoze and remove all blighted, vacant buildings in the city rather than leave them standing and continue to be a saftey hazard. He noted that the vacant land would hold a lower value than the land with the house on it and eventually land values would get so low (by many blocks being vacant) that land price itself would spur some re-development in the city. The land would not become city owend, but would remain in private ownership.

    I countered that we tried this 30 years ago nationwide and our fair city STILL has vacant lots in the old part of town that are not being redeveloped.

    He also swears that what people really want is their own spaces.. their own yard, and no urban congestion. They don't want a shared park, they want their own little park (backyard). This is why the cities are loosing population again (like SF and BOS).

    So Throbbing BrainTM, what is better for the long term health of a city vacant lots or vacant housing?

  5. #5
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boiker
    A senior planner...swears that what people really want is their own spaces.. their own yard, and no urban congestion. They don't want a shared park, they want their own little park (backyard). This is why the cities are loosing population again (like SF and BOS).
    I swear that your senior planner is a nit-wit. If I recall correctly, most of Peoria is single-family detached anyways. Meaning that practically everyone has a yard, of varying size. So, what the hell is she/he talking about? Is there some minimum backyard size, below which he/she feels is insufficient?

    Now, as for vacant buildings vs. vacant lots, that one is actually kinda tough. I think a vacant lot is better than an unsecured, structurally dangerous building, but if the vacant building is in good shape and quality construction/materials, then it's a tougher decision. If you are demolishing a cheaply built late-19th century workers cottage, that may not be such a loss, but the demolition of a grand old house or masonry rowhouse/townhouse would be more of a loss. The former could be more easily replicated with contemporary construction materials/experience, but the later would not be easily (ie: cost-effectively) replicated today.
    Last edited by mendelman; 05 Jul 2005 at 5:19 PM.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

    Six seasons and a movie!

  6. #6

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    The ideal of every family with its own yard is sold as the only proper way to live. So, of course people "want" that.

    What do I observe in riding my bike through less affluent neighborhoods? Half the backyards are bare dirt and star thistle (a particularly noxious asiatic weed). Heck, many of the front yards "needed" by every family are not maintained in a usable fashion.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    We take a pragmatic approach and have lots of both. Or, it just goes to show you what happens when a city's population is halved.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Big Owl's avatar
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    While not a fix to whether vacant is better then built upon. i have been reading a little on Land Value Tax which would tax lots located similar areas the same based on economic rent. here is a website that explains it better and some Pennsylvania planners might have a different take on it.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Not having any research at hand -- so I am just speaking off the cuff -- I would think it depends on a lot of factors. If it a high crime area, blighted buildings can be a haven for people who are bad news -- in which case, vacant lots would provide less cover for criminal activity. If they are so derelict that they are a breeding ground for mold, mildew, rats, etc., I would also think vacant lots would be better. But vacant houses can be the seeds of redevelopment. It is usually much easier to start with something and work on rehabbing it a little at a time than to build a house from scratch. Building a house from scratch takes lots of money, good credit, personal organization, etc. up front. Rehabbing a house can be a pay as you go, learn as you go endeavor and it can be a wealth-generating prospect where you turn the house into something of much more value than what you started with. A lot of people cannot afford a nice home any other way. Buying cheap and making it better has a lot of up side.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    [QUOTE=boiker]A senior planner mused today that it might be better for the long term health of the city to bulldoze and remove all blighted, vacant buildings in the city rather than leave them standing and continue to be a saftey hazard. He noted that the vacant land would hold a lower value than the land with the house on it and eventually land values would get so low (by many blocks being vacant) that land price itself would spur some re-development in the city. The land would not become city owend, but would remain in private ownership.

    I countered that we tried this 30 years ago nationwide and our fair city STILL has vacant lots in the old part of town that are not being redeveloped.

    He also swears that what people really want is their own spaces.. their own yard, and no urban congestion. They don't want a shared park, they want their own little park (backyard). This is why the cities are loosing population again (like SF and BOS).
    We have plenty of both were I am at. We can rehab. many of these at a affordable price for resale. Demo and new construction cost about twice as much. Right now there are actual blocks assembled. In this case I would concentrate new homes on the assembled lots now. Try and fit rehab as I went. They just had a consultant write a plan for this area. I compared it with one that was written in the 1970s ,all you had to do was change the dates and the letterhead they would have looked the same.We have lost 25% of the population since the 1960s.
    I was fortunate enough to work with some of the people from the days of bulldozing. They were able to show me some of the old project plans, the areas of success and failure. Sometimes you have to approach things a block at a time or a house at a time. The funding just is not around for the large scale. Sometimes you may chase those out you are trying to keep.
    So they are going to try another large scale where I am at. I think the consultants(not from our area) will do well , as for community???? Some people just dont believe in taking history into account.

  11. #11
    Quote Originally posted by boiker
    He also swears that what people really want is their own spaces.. their own yard, and no urban congestion. They don't want a shared park, they want their own little park (backyard).
    I love it when other people tell me what my wants and desires are.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    Not having any research at hand -- so I am just speaking off the cuff -- I would think it depends on a lot of factors. If it a high crime area, blighted buildings can be a haven for people who are bad news -- in which case, vacant lots would provide less cover for criminal activity. If they are so derelict that they are a breeding ground for mold, mildew, rats, etc., I would also think vacant lots would be better. But vacant houses can be the seeds of redevelopment. It is usually much easier to start with something and work on rehabbing it a little at a time than to build a house from scratch. Building a house from scratch takes lots of money, good credit, personal organization, etc. up front. Rehabbing a house can be a pay as you go, learn as you go endeavor and it can be a wealth-generating prospect where you turn the house into something of much more value than what you started with. A lot of people cannot afford a nice home any other way. Buying cheap and making it better has a lot of up side.
    I don't know if this is as much of a factor now as it was when I heard this a few years ago, but I do recall a discussion of a major Federal dis-incentive to the wholesale re-enovation of such houses for resale, that being the capitol gains tax. They would tax the difference between the pre and post re-enovation prices of the properties as a capitol gain rather than ordinary business income. The result was that entrepreneurs whom would do that (something that I would think would be a fantastic business) ended up doing all of that work and making well below minimum wage for their efforts when it was all done.

    As for the main subject of this thread, it depends on local circumstances, but unless there is an overriding reason not to, I would not be afraid to remove long-vacant buildings. One thing that I thought of a few years ago was for a city with a large area of vacant/derelict/tax-delinquent houses and other buildings to 'rent' them out to various fire and other emergency agencies for practice, bringing in some revenue while removing those severely blighted buildings.

    Urban areas with large areas of vacant but 'developed' (as in meaning that the streets and all utilities are in) lots can suddenly become hot building areas with minimal additional effort on the citys' part (ie, the Kenwood area in Chicago).

    Many times, too, these existing vacant buildings are so far gone that they cannot be economically re-enovated, even if there is a sudden demand for them.

    Mike

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920
    I don't know if this is as much of a factor now as it was when I heard this a few years ago, but I do recall a discussion of a major Federal dis-incentive to the wholesale re-enovation of such houses for resale, that being the capitol gains tax. They would tax the difference between the pre and post re-enovation prices of the properties as a capitol gain rather than ordinary business income. The result was that entrepreneurs whom would do that (something that I would think would be a fantastic business) ended up doing all of that work and making well below minimum wage for their efforts when it was all done.
    I was thinking in terms of individual homeowners cuz I did something along those lines -- not a blighted area, but a cheap area (the only area in town cheap enough for us to afford a 3 bedroom at the time). I think there were 3 trailer courts in the school district of the elementary school my oldest child attended there. It was generally considered to be a "poor" neighborhood and the school had enough low income students to qualify for more than one federal educational program that subsidized the school.

  14. #14

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    To me it would largely depend on the quality of the buildings themselves; architecturally, historically and their place within the street scene. Sometime it can be better to demolish old vacnat buildings if they are tat but there needs to be some sort of cohesive strategy as to what will happen with the empty land.

  15. #15
    Both vacant lots and vacant buildings are terrible for neighborhoods. As pointed out by many people, vacant buildings attract criminals and are arson targets. However, vacant land is no better. They attracts illegal dumpers and are impossible to keep weeds from getting taller than people (okay, I am only 5'6" and the weeds are taller than me). A neighborhood full of these vacant lots seems to cave under the pressure.

    As for San Francisco and Boston losing population... Boston is gaining households but they tend to be households with fewer, if any children. We don't have abandoned buildings anymore (maybe a couple dozen in the entire city - and these mostly are vacant because of problematic landlords, subject for another thread). There is an old story told about the former State Senate President, Bill Bulger. Someone pointed to a 3 family building in his district and asked him to explain why there were 20 voters in the building. His reply: "the second floor is vacant." San Francisco is the same way, lots and lots of housing demand, but for smaller households.

    My advice is to redevelop, don't allow vacant land or buildings to stay around.

  16. #16
         
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    In my opinion it depends on the structure. Of course you could tear everything down, start over and you will have exactly what your Senior Planner wants, new, cheap housing and strip malls. Or you can find a way to secure the structures until someone comes along and wants to invest in the area. Are these historic structures, do they add to the community/neighborhood in anyway, did any contributing members of your city ever live in them, is the architecture significant in anyway? If so there are historic tax credits and incentives for rehabilitation, etc.
    I really think the removal of structures destroys an area, even an area that is in need of some help. Find/creat a redevelopment corporation, look into a TIF District, look into tax credits, etc. Removing the buildings will destroy the streetscape, sense of place, sense of community and soul of the area.
    And while saying this, I know vacant structures just invite crime/dumping/unsafe conditions...find a way to get the buildings secure, get the windows boarded up, put locks on the doors, send notice of violation to the property owners. We send letters, summons whatever it takes, if they don't secure the building or fix the problem, we go in and do it on our own then put a lien on the property. That may not be an option for your community but securing the the strucutre should be. I imagine you have property maintenance regulations in place.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    There are a few ways of looking at this. You could put a “Broken Window” clause into your ordinance that requires that vacant structures be boarded up on the inside of the windows, and that any broken windows be replaced within 72 hours of notification. Also maintain strict code enforcement on vacant properties when it comes to paint, tall weeds and grass, inoperable cars, parking on vacant lots, and casual entry for accessory structures. Maintain a stance that vacant structures must not look like vacant structures. This would be the same for both commercial and residential properties.

    If they tear them down, require that the property owner return property to “Natural” conditions by removing the building, parking lot, drive way, any gravel or concrete bits, and require them to plant and maintain grass and trees on the site. That way if the building won’t be there, a park like lot will be.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  18. #18

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    Quote Originally posted by boiker
    So Throbbing BrainTM, what is better for the long term health of a city vacant lots or vacant housing?
    I would say the answer rests on the issue of location.

    Much of my work in my position has been in completing neighborhood plans for impoverished and/or deteriorated neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods I've worked in have vacant land and historically significant vacant buildings and are on the cusp of some welcomed gentrification. Neighborhoods like that may want to preserve as many buildings as they can, because the buildings can be a catalyst for redevelopment.

    Other neighborhoods I've worked in have had TONS of vacant land (like 1/3 of all parcels in a six-square-mile area), with no near-term economic growth in sight, and their challenge has been to think creatively about the one resource they do have -- land. So we've talked about transferring city-owned parcels to adjacent homeowners, assembling sites for some large-scale housing development, creating parks, and even using sites for urban commercial agriculture (yes, there is enough land for it).

  19. #19
    Cyburbian RandomPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mendelman
    Now, as for vacant buildings vs. vacant lots, that one is actually kinda tough. I think a vacant lot is better than an unsecured, structurally dangerous building, but if the vacant building is in good shape and quality construction/materials, then it's a tougher decision. If you are demolishing a cheaply built late-19th century workers cottage, that may not be such a loss, but the demolition of a grand old house or masonry rowhouse/townhouse would be more of a loss. The former could be more easily replicated with contemporary construction materials/experience, but the later would not be easily (ie: cost-effectively) replicated today.
    I agree!! It seems an easy fix to demo the houses and start over later, but where does that leave our good quality architecture of the past? In a pile at the land fill?
    Often, people tear down good solid buildings with a story and a past life (not to mention the fact that they've often lasted a hundred years already) and replace it with fast and sterile construction that will probably be torn down itself in 20-30 years - because it won't be worth saving.
    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup
    My advice is to redevelop, don't allow vacant land or buildings to stay around.
    Easier said than done, don't you think??
    How do I know you are who you think you are?

  20. #20
    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis
    Also maintain strict code enforcement on vacant properties when it comes to paint, tall weeds and grass, inoperable cars, parking on vacant lots, and casual entry for accessory structures. Maintain a stance that vacant structures must not look like vacant structures. This would be the same for both commercial and residential properties.
    The only issue with maintenance of uninhabited structures is prohibitive cost. If residents are leaving an area, there is a decreased tax base. Such an approach may work for an area with proportionately few abandoned buildings but would be ludicrously impractical for a city such as Detroit with 15,000+.

    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis
    If they tear them down, require that the property owner return property to “Natural” conditions by removing the building, parking lot, drive way, any gravel or concrete bits, and require them to plant and maintain grass and trees on the site. That way if the building won’t be there, a park like lot will be.
    The viability of mandatory "natural conditions" would depend on who performs the demolition. If there is a registered landlord who is willing to pay for the tear-down, maybe. Otherwise, the entire cost of the demolition would have to be covered by the municipality. I'm all for natural conditions as opposed to empty foundations and cracked driveways. Perhaps if land was cleared, and the city could afford it, basic mowing to maintain visibility would be an added benefit.

    Quote Originally posted by mgk920
    One thing that I thought of a few years ago was for a city with a large area of vacant/derelict/tax-delinquent houses and other buildings to 'rent' them out to various fire and other emergency agencies for practice, bringing in some revenue while removing those severely blighted buildings.
    I've actually heard of this being done, specifically in Rochester, NY. It is an ingenious way to use abandoned structures (with the added benefit of scaring away any squatters). But it could be kind of strange to see firemen hacking into your ex-neighbor's roof.

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