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Rethinking Foreclosures as an Opportunity in Shaker Heights, OH


by the Alliance for Innovation: An interview with Kamla Lewis, Director of Neighborhood Revitalization, Shaker Heights, OH

Shaker Heights, like much of the country, was hard hit by the foreclosure crisis. Many properties were going vacant and becoming demolished.  Through forward-thinking partnerships, Shaker Heights found ways to turn vacant lots into part of the neighborhood fabric of the community.  The Alliance interviewed Kamla Lewis, Director of Neighborhood Revitalization, to learn more.

How did the project develop?  Faced with owning these vacant lots, we asked ourselves what we can do with them to improve the community.  When we were considering ideas, there weren’t many best practices available.  Instead, we connected with the organization Reimagining Cleveland (http://www.cudc.kent.edu/projects_research/research/reimagining_cleveland.html), an informal group of individuals in academia and research examining the issue of foreclosures and developing ideas on how vacant lots can be used.  While many of the ideas weren’t compatible for Shaker Heights, what was important was connecting with a group that was thinking about these issues.  The ideas ranged from creating new parks to improving storm water management.  This group became our incubator for possible solutions.  We recognized that we needed to adapt the ideas of Reimagining Cleveland into strategies that would work for Shaker Heights.  As a result, we engaged our existing neighborhood associations. 

We looked at the vacant lots as an opportunity to rethink the space as an opportunity for development.  Since Shaker Heights is built out, these opportunities are rare.  We turned some of the lots into mini-parks.   Recognizing that creativity doesn’t just exist with city staff, we engaged residents to bring forward their ideas on how to use the lots.  Instead of setting a sales price and selling vacant lots, we have a proposal approach where when someone has a use for a lot, they put forward a  proposal which is reviewed by a committee  and so the community determines what would work best in their neighborhood.  We focused on ideas that put new investment into the property such as gardens, labyrinths, side lots, neighborhood orchards, rain gardens, handicapped accessible playgrounds, passive green areas, seating areas in commercial districts, and connecting walkways and neighborhoods to commercial areas.

Have you encountered any challenges in this approach?  Finding funding was the biggest challenge, but through partnerships with the neighborhoods we were able to gain investment and support for these ideas.  Once an idea is identified by a group, it’s easier to find resources, such as grants and private funding to support them.  Another challenge was the need to create a balance between those who wanted to to transfer ownership of the properties as quickly as possible and those who felt that they should be held as future assets.  We choose to hold the properties longer than most would as we viewed them as an investment in the community.  As a result, we maintain the lots until a new project can be developed.  We hired landscape designers to develop landscape plans to ensure the lots fit with the neighborhood as we waited for the new ideas to develop, and landscape and fence the lots accordingly.  

What engagement strategies did you use?  We worked very closely with the neighborhood associations to take their ideas and gather feedback.  We also have standing committees made of council and residents which oversee all our activities.  We use these forums to determine the best approach to improve the lots from various points of view as we have a broad representation in these groups.  We also engaged the neighbors directly, observing and talking with the residents.  Every time a demolition happened people tended to come watch or call us.  We were always asking “what they wanted to see happen to the lots.” 

What advice do you have for others looking at adapting this idea?  You must build partnerships at the neighborhood level and the political level so the programs can mature and develop as ideas don’t all come at once.  You need to push the belief that land is an asset and an opportunity for the community to rally around.  Often we rally around negative aspects of the foreclosure crisis instead of the opportunities they can represent.

What does the future hold?  One of the things we are looking at is creating a more formalized neighborhood challenge to offer the associations a grant to motivate the development of new ideas.  We have used this model on other projects and found it creates a ripe environment for innovation.  We also offer the lots to developers to build, but in some cases the current market is still too weak for this to be a viable alternative. To create an incentive to build new housing, we had a local architect develop housing designs and make them available to developers, saving them time and money.  It allows them to get a shovel in the ground more quickly.  This is a program we’d like to promote more heavily and bridge the gap for developers to make infill housing for feasible.

Anything else you’d like to share?  We also have another initiative underway where we propose to use our vacant lots to help promote alternative energy options, such as geothermal energy or solar power, using the lots as a place where the wells can be drilled or solar panels installed.  We are currently researching various financing models to support these projects.

Learn more about Shaker Heights at http://shakeronline.com/

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