Sometimes Vacant Land is Just Fine

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the possibilities in vacant or underused property in the heart of the city. Kaid Benfield brought this topic up in his recent mention on Rooflines of how a Boston CDC showed movies on a vacant lot. I’ve been talking with colleagues in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood about how to make creative use of a parking lot when it’s not full of cars. Then I read a story in the New Yorker about ambitious plans to re-make Governors Island, a huge piece of empty real estate in New York Harbor. What’s interesting in each case is the tension between seeing vacant land as something that ought to be open to the public, free of charge, and the uncomfortable reality that someone has to pay for that.

There are also creative types trying to envision alternative futures for empty lots in places like Cleveland or Detroit, where such weed-strewn properties abound. Often the proposed solutions involve farming, bike paths or some other sort of green space. Others organize artsy projects on these sites, not just movies but also disco parties and what not, with the aim of instilling vibrancy and giving people a sense of what could be. In Midwestern, shrinking cities perhaps these visions really will come to pass. But in expensive coastal cities, one wonders if the real estate barons must invariably eventually gain control. Vacant property is just waiting for the right development deal to be made.

I recently had the chance to visit two of the islands in Boston Harbor, including Spectacle Island. This place has a (literally) sordid history. It was a trash dump for much of the 20th century, which led to underground fires caused by methane gas that burned out of control. Later, tons of dirt from the nearby Big Dig project were piled on top of the trash.

Then an amazing transformation occurred. The city, state and the National Park Service built a beautiful park on top of the refuse and dirt, with an emphasis on native plants. They added a visitor center that runs on radiant heat, solar power and composting toilets. Now thousands of people come to fly kites and stroll around the island. With its green theme of ecological renewal, the island is becoming the main event for harbor visitors.

As I stood on one of the high points on the island, I gazed out at some of the other islands in the harbor. One is used for a homeless shelter. Another features a Civil War fort. You can go camping on two other islands. None of the islands has any sort of real estate development likely to ever reap profits for anyone, in the public or private spheres.

I haven’t heard of anyone questioning the way the Boston Harbor Islands have been managed. Then there’s the case of Governors Island, sold to the City of New York for $1 with the understanding that no one would ever make money on the deal. The New Yorker piece suggests that it might be a waste of resources to let such a valuable chunk of land be used for things like a mini-golf course and free bike rentals. Things that ordinary people might find more useful than, say, another hotel and condo complex.

I rather like what Boston did to restore life to its dead island. But I see the impulse to wring dollars from every last inch of the city as far more common.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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