Abandoned Lots - What's a Community To Do?

Abandoned lots dot the central city landscape in small towns to big cities throughout America. Tearing down an existing historic house is one of the least green things a community can do. Doing so also takes away the cultural and historic context of our neighborhoods. Vacant lots are magnets for crime, trash and despair as well as a prescription for property taxes to plummet. So what can we do to stop this insanity? There are several ways to deal with this issue, some better than others.

Many not-for-profit, community development corporations (CDC's) feel tearing down abandoned houses and building new in-fill housing is a great way to deal with the problem. They whine about lead paint, old windows and paint that just won't stick anymore. Never mind that all these issues are totally bogus and brought on by lazy federal employees who feel that historic preservation gets in the way of their ability to provide so-called "affordable housing" that generally ruins our historic neighborhoods.

The federal regulations on this grant money are anti-environmental, anti-preservation, anti-poor people and promote the idea that if you live in a central city historic neighborhood you are a second- class citizen.

They pack low-income home ownership and section-8 rental property programs into these important neighborhood with little no input from the neighbors. Do they actually think that putting all the low-income housing programs in one area is a good thing? Creating essentially new public housing environments like the demolished Cabrini Green tenements in Chicago is not good for any community.

Often houses are torn down because they make people feel bad and are a safety hazard. This is understandable but I disagree with this approach.

The Garbology study done by Arizona State University several years ago established that as much as 30% of Americas landfills are choked with demolition and construction debris. Over six million old growth window sashes end up in our landfills yearly. In truth, most of these houses are well built with quality materials not available today. Rehabbing these classic structures will almost always cost less than building new and provide character not affordable in new construction.

The problem is that many times the cost to rehab exceeds the appraised value in certain areas. So, why not just tear them down? Well, a more creative and environmentally sound way to deal with this issue is to mothball these houses. For less than the cost of demolition an abandoned house can be stabilized and held for future rehab. Patching the roof and painting the façade can work well toward this goal.

To make the house secure we usually put plywood over the windows and doors. While this is ugly I've been able to work with high school and college art classes to make this plywood come alive. Students paint the plywood with curtains, living room scenes and people peeking out of the windows. Instead of feeling bad about the house, people now drive by with a smile on their faces. The house is stable, pleasant looking and available for rehab when the market improves.

Sometimes houses must be demolished and vacant lots are the result. Before new infill housing is ever considered it makes more sense to let the occupied homes on either side of the lot incorporate them into their yards. One of the problems we have attracting folks back to the central city are the small yards often typical of historic family homes. These CDC's can usually purchase the lots inexpensively divide them and sell or give them to the adjoining property owners. Only when all of these options have been exhausted, should in-fill be considered.

Infill comes in three varieties. Moving existing historic houses onto vacant lots, building new homes that fit the neighborhoods character and building new houses that don't fit in the neighborhood. The latter I like to call "alien infill". We've all seen houses that are so alien to the neighborhood they appear to have been plopped down by Martians.

Good infill construction considers the setback, scale, and massing of the surrounding homes. A good example would be the new housing Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana is building on the North side of the city. If you drive by these homes, only a trained expert would know they were new.

Another great example of good infill is right here in Hannibal, Missouri. This is a town of 18,000 people with a nice historic main street area. We are having a brand new state-of-the-art 8-plex movie theater built on an empty lot right in the heart of this historic area. When completed it will look like multiple two story brick party wall buildings and blend right in with the historic structures.

A typical central city street is often tree-lined with two-story, historic homes. These are family homes set close to the street. They have detached garages, steep pitched roofs, lots of depth and texture as well as varying natural materials on their exteriors. Infill on this type of street would need to follow these same design features in order to look and feel right in the neighborhood. A vinyl sided ranch house with a fake front gable, attached garage and sliding glass doors would obviously be an "alien infill" and a jarring sight indeed. This type of bad infill also lowers the value of the existing historic homes.

Infill that fits the neighborhood can be accomplished affordably if the organizations that are building them use creativity and solicit the input of neighbors. To do otherwise invites the landing of the alien mother ship.