Cities seek ways to make the 'brownfields' bloom

November 13, 1995|By Neal R. Peirce

PHILADELPHIA -- Step between the abandoned tires and trash on the edge of a ''brownfield'' in this city's North Liberty neighborhood, and the tableau of a profound American tragedy lies before you.

Close by, one rowhouse is only partly collapsed, a second-floor commode swaying perilously on the edge of a rotting floor. Two blocks away, the ghostly hulk of a massive, abandoned brewery is etched against the afternoon sky. In between, dotted with clumps of knee-high grass, lie acres of rubble.

The same American civilization that produces nonstop expansion onto virginal ''greenfield'' sites in distant suburbs is permitting vast stretches of old industrial neighborhoods in older cities to rot and fester in abandonment.

The scale of loss is massive. Philadelphia, hit by factory closings and heavy abandonment of its traditional rowhouses, is now scarred by 15,800 vacant lots and 27,000 vacant structures -- enough, if they were in one parcel, to fill the entire downtown.

Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit lost on average 37 percent of their central-city population between 1960 and 1990 -- even while suburban population and land use soared.

Short of coherent regionwide land-use policies to redirect more development to brownfield sites and to save pristine meadows and forests on greenfield peripheries, what can older cities do?

Philadelphia Green, an offshoot of the 168-year-old Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, has helped residents of eight blighted neighborhoods create ''Greene Countrie Townes'' by turning vacant lots into gardens, lining streets with flowering barrels, planting street trees and tree parks.

But now, confessing its model programs barely scratch the surface, the society has used funds from the Pew Charitable Trusts to survey the national urban problem of vacant lands and articulate strategies for the future.

The report, ''Urban Vacant Land'' (available by calling 215-625-8280 or by means of e-mail to janetevalibertynet.org) starts by pinpointing an underlying problem: City governments operate on the outmoded assumption that all city land has value and should quickly yield property taxes. Deindustrialization, toxic residues, racial fears and heavy federal subsidies for suburban growth have destroyed the economic value of much urban land.

Virtually no city has a comprehensive plan to prevent unkempt lots turning into eyesores of desolation that breed rubbish, rodents, drug dealing and worse. Vest-pocket parks, created by city governments in the '60s and '70s, quickly deteriorated for lack of maintenance and community involvement.

Community gardens, appealing to residents' green thumbs and pushed forward by organizations such as the Philadelphia Green and the Trust for Public Land, have increased from fewer than 20 in the early '70s to 350 today. But the gardens, cumulatively, address a small fraction of need. And whether it's gardens, parks or other rehabilitated open space, fiscally stressed cities have a tough time providing maintenance.

The only answer, concludes the Horticultural Society: a central role for residents, community organizations and local businesses with a stake in maintaining ''defensible spaces.''

Suburbia in the city

The society is encouraging Community Development Corporations, known as expert housing rehabilitators, to plan for entire neighborhoods around their properties, using the easily available land for more gardens, landscaping, yard and play space, resident and business parking -- indeed, to add a measure of suburbia's spaciousness in the inner city.

One such group, the Women's Community Revitalization Project in North Philadelphia, is seeking ''a greener, less dense landscape'' with detailed plans for long-term maintenance at the start of housing reconstruction.

But can city governments assemble vacant lands and recycle them smartly? The record is grim. Burdened with land laws written generations ago, often unaware of their vacant land inventory, many cities take three to five years to turn over a single parcel.

There are whiffs of reform. New York now has a centralized computer registry of vacant land. Boston consults neighborhoods before auctioning off abandoned parcels. Cleveland aggressively seizes tax-delinquent properties, gives owners two weeks instead of the former five years to pay up and reclaim, and then puts parcels in a land bank for any use from yard expansions to full-scale redevelopment projects.

In Philadelphia the Planning Commission (215-686-4607) recently produced a top-notch study, ''Vacant Land in Philadelphia.'' It features multiple strategies to clear titles rapidly, market surplus property aggressively, and enlist community groups in creative land recycling projects.

Will all this work? No one knows. Changes in statutes, reductions in city red tape are critical. And getting city governments to empower neighborhoods to set their own land strategies, says the Horticultural Society's Blaine Bonham, will be the ''big nut to crack.'' For now, mark urban land reform as a work in progress.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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