Where Do We Fit In? CDCs and the Emerging Shrinking City Movement

As some cities begin to admit they are shrinking, CDCs in high-abandonment neighborhoods are rethinking their traditional roles, and even their missions.

shrinking cities: images shows youth in green T-shirts, the "Green Team" of a Cleveland CDC.
The Green Team of Slavic Village Development, a Cleveland CDC, creating raised bed gardens. Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Progress Inc.

There’s nothing new about shrinking cities. Many American cities have been losing population steadily since the 1950s and 1960s, as suburbanization, deindustrialization, and migration to the Sun Belt have all taken their toll. Detroit has lost a million people since 1950, a decline of 54 percent, and vast areas of open land where pheasants strut through the underbrush have replaced houses, stores, and factories. Other cities, including Youngstown, Cleveland, Dayton, and Buffalo, are in the same boat.

What is new is that more and more cities are coming out and admitting that they are shrinking. In the early 1990s, when Detroit’s city ombudsman, Marie Farrell-Donaldson, a respected African-American civic leader, called for the city to recognize that it was shrinking and begin to act accordingly, the response was a mixture of anger and ridicule. Today, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has embraced shrinkage and set a planning process in motion that explicitly recognizes that the future Detroit will be a smaller, greener city than it once was.

Planning for a shrinking city is tough. Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown have begun to recognize that they have far more houses and apartments than they will ever need in the future. They have large areas that have lost most of their population, where most of the houses have been demolished, and where few if any prospective homeowners want to buy. At the same time, many other seemingly healthy neighborhoods are at risk. As Detroit’s Karla Henderson says, “Even some of our stronger neighborhoods are at a tipping point with vacancy.”

With rents and sales prices at rock bottom, with vacant units in the thousands, and demand not enough to keep houses even in the cities’ stronger neighborhoods occupied, cities face a series of tough choices. Building more new housing, particularly affordable housing, means (with rare exceptions) that even more older homes will be abandoned. Disproportionately poor populations and high unemployment mean that these cities need to find new engines to drive their local economy or face a future as little more than bankrupt wards of a fraying welfare state. At the same time, with cities facing massive deficits, the pressure to cut back on services and infrastructure in largely depopulated areas is strong. Many of these strategies can be controversial, stirring up memories of discredited practices like urban renewal and redlining.

Roles for CDCs

Community development corporations (CDCs) in cities like Detroit and Cleveland have been working for years to rebuild neighborhoods, and they find themselves challenged by this new movement.

Detroit’s CDCs, led by their association, Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), have embraced the challenge head-on. At the end of 2008, well before Mayor Bing was elected, CDAD pulled together a task force to take a serious look at Detroit’s future. As CDAD’s chair, Southwest Housing Solutions Executive Director Tim Thorland, says, “It is only when we understand the conditions and strategies necessary for the entire city that we can begin to make decisions about specific neighborhoods.”

The task force report, published in February 2010, was not a master plan, but was designed to be a strategic framework for revitalizing the city’s neighborhoods. The task force identified 11 different types of area in Detroit, ranging from older, viable neighborhoods they dubbed “traditional residential sectors” to “urban homestead sectors” and “naturescapes,” largely vacant areas that CDAD suggests should be seen as future natural landscapes. CDAD did not attempt to map the different types of area they identified, leaving that effort for the next — and probably more difficult — phase of their work.

Cleveland, which has lost half a million in population since 1950, a decline of 55 percent, is also looking at reimagining itself as smaller place. As Senior Vice President Bobbi Reichtell of Neighborhood Progress Inc., a foundation-funded local intermediary, describes it, “In the summer of 2007, we started the conversation, and were awarded a grant from the Surdna Foundation to engage the Kent State Urban Design Collaborative in a citywide planning process to look at repurposing vacant land, making it more productive, adding value in neighborhoods.” (Getting city buy-in required promising to avoid using the term “shrinking,” but with that promise, the city government has been a strong supporter.) This conversation turned into the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland initiative. Reichtell lists the kinds of ideas that came up for using vacant land: “brownfields remediation techniques, capture storm water, native plantings. A few categories rose to the top. High interest in local food made urban agriculture one of them.”

Once the plan had been approved by the city’s Planning Commission, in 2009, Neighborhood Progress invited CDCs and others to submit proposals for a series of pilot projects to use vacant land based on the ideas of the Urban Design Collaborative. Fifty-six small grants of $20,000 or less (most under $10,000) were awarded for projects such as market gardens, orchards, pocket parks, and phytoremediation of brownfield sites. A number of CDCs competed for the grants, including Mount Pleasant NOW Development Corporation, Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, and Slavic Village CDC.

The focus on what can be done by communities with lots of vacant land lessens the sting of Cleveland’s decision to focus its housing development and rehab resources in a couple targeted neighborhoods, says Reichtell. “Rather than saying ‘Oh you’re a second class citizen, we’re not going to do anything in your neighborhood,’ we are sending resources for projects that can in some cases create as much vibrancy as if you’d rehabbed a house.”

Cleveland has a robust CDC infrastructure. Youngstown, a city which has lost nearly two-thirds of its population, lacked strong CDCs, and the local Raymond John Wean Foundation took the lead to create one, funding the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) in 2009 and helping to recruit Presley Gillespie, a highly-skilled veteran of banking and urban real estate, as the group’s executive director. As Gillespie puts it, “Before, there were organizations that were doing low-income housing, those sorts of things. Our approach is comprehensive. We want to transform the image, the confidence, the physical conditions, and the market demand for our neighborhoods.”

YNDC’s mission is actually to concentrate on the stronger neighborhoods, with, as he puts it, “the most chance for success.” Gillespie says, though, that their target neighborhoods “are distressed, have seen disinvestment, decline and vacancy. It’s not like we’re going to places that are fine.” Realistically, there are few places inside Youngstown’s borders that don’t need serious help.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s CDCs have not been idle. Once the CDAD report came out, its members turned to the tough task of figuring out how to bring the framework down to the ground. During the past year, a CDAD working group led by Sam Butler, former executive director of Creekside CDC on Detroit’s East Side and now part of the Detroit Vacant Properties Campaign, partnered with Data-Driven Detroit (D3) to develop indicators of neighborhood conditions that could be used by CDCs and neighborhood groups to evaluate their own conditions. “We’re trying to make information accessible,” says Butler. “We need to give residents a way to talk about their neighborhoods, to empower them to think strategically.”

Armed with the indicators, Detroit’s CDCs have kicked off two pilot efforts to translate the strategic framework into specific neighborhood plans. Half a dozen CDCs have come together in a collaborative effort in the city’s lower East Side. During 2011, they will be working with a 125-member resident advisory group to come up with strategies for a large area that includes a lot of vacant land, but also two pockets of stable housing. The other pilot, led by Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, will address a smaller area in the city’s Southwest corridor.

Changing the Equation

Shrinking cities challenge the basic equation that most CDCs have followed from their inception. That equation had two features. The first was that the neighborhood where the CDC was working — and by inference all neighborhoods — could be “saved,” revitalized, and turned into a thriving community. The second was that development, particularly new housing, was a central part of the process of revitalization.

In a city that has and will have for the foreseeable future a far smaller population than it once had, not every neighborhood is a candidate for revitalization. Neighborhoods that may have been vital communities 30 or 40 years ago, but which have lost 70 or 80 percent of their population, and where occupied houses are fewer than vacant ones and both are rarer than vacant lots, are not likely to come back as vibrant urban neighborhoods. Given the limited demand for housing in such cities as a whole, any new homes built in such an area would at best draw demand from somewhere else, undermining some other part of the city. More likely, they would sit vacant.

This goes directly to the second part of the equation. Many, perhaps most, CDCs identify themselves with what they build — after all, that’s why they’re called community development corporations. What does a CDC do if there’s no need to build any more houses or apartments in their neighborhood, and where decent quality private housing is available at the same or lower rent than a tax-credit project? That’s not just a question of mission; for many CDCs it may be a question of survival, since many have come to rely on developer fees as a major source of funds to cover their operating budgets.

The fact is, however, that there are many ways a CDC can add value and strengthen a neighborhood without building any new housing. Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation’s flagship project in the Idora neighborhood is a program they call Lots of Green. Idora is a viable neighborhood with many nice houses, but with too much scattered vacant land. So, Gillespie says, “we decided to take over about 150 vacant lots, and clean, repurpose, and reactivate those lots into neighborhood assets. We turn lots into urban agriculture, pocket parks, green space, and a side lot program for adjacent homeowners. Our urban ag site has community gardens, fruit orchards, rain gardens, green space.” YNDC is working with Ohio State to use vacant land in the area to reduce stormwater runoff.

At the same time, YNDC is focusing on strengthening Idora’s housing market by helping people make home repairs, providing incentives for people to buy homes in the neighborhood, and using NSP funds for selective rehab of key vacant structures that are important to the neighborhood’s fabric.

One of the most valuable features of the CDAD strategic framework is that, after identifying the 11 different types of area, it goes on to offer a menu of suggestions for CDCs working in each type of area. Some of the things it suggests CDCs could take on in traditional residential sectors include:

  • Code enforcement and blight reduction
  • Strategies to catalyze private market housing activity
  • Weatherization and greening assistance
  • Planning for use of vacant lots
  • Fostering community engagement for land use planning and resident cohesion

In naturescapes, on the other hand, the framework suggests that CDCs could help create a land conservancy, facilitate resident relocation, partner with others to encourage deconstruction (taking buildings down in such a way as to be able to reuse building materials and fixtures, as opposed to demolition) of existing vacant buildings, and support community policing.

Many CDCs, and not only those in shrinking cities, have begun to reevaluate their mission and think about neighborhood revitalization more comprehensively, often in ways more sensitive to market constraints and opportunities. Some have always had a comprehensive approach, such as Detroit’s Warren/Conner Development Coalition, which is now playing a leading role in the lower East Side pilot project.

Many other CDCs are still grappling with these issues, as did Detroit’s CDCs as they went through a nearly yearlong process of rethinking; as the CDAD report notes, “We must also hold up a mirror to ourselves. We must be willing to restructure, realign and even merge when necessary.”

Still to Be Answered

Even once CDCs in shrinking cities embrace a new role suited to their context, two big question marks remain that are not within the control of individual CDCs or even CDCs as a group or industry.

First is how to pay the bills. CDCs trying to reinvent themselves around new models of community building that do not involve housing development struggle with the question of how to pay for the new activities that new strategies demand and how to replace developer fees with other sources of revenue, particularly at a time when both public and private funds are in short supply. Warren/Conner’s effective Rebuilding Communities Initiative, which focused on small-scale community-building efforts in conjunction with residents, block clubs, and civic associations, was forced to close in 2008 as a result of funding cuts. This problem will not be easy to solve.

The second problem is perhaps even more fundamental. A successful revitalization strategy for a shrinking city demands, as the CDAD report states, a “citywide, realistic and collaborative strategy.” The realities of shrinking population, limited housing demand, and limited resources cry out for targeted strategies, where people look at the city as a whole and start making thoughtful decisions about what is going on where, and what makes sense in different places: where new housing might be built, where low-density quasi-suburban neighborhoods might emerge, and where land should be set aside for urban farms or habitat restoration. It is hard, if not impossible, for a CDC to mount an effective neighborhood effort built around shrinkage without being part of a larger citywide strategy.

Most CDCs recognize how important city government is and how closely tied their respective efforts are. The view from the other side is mixed. Cleveland has a long tradition of city-CDC collaboration, and in this area, as NPI’s Reichtell put it, “The city and CDCs have close to a consensus over which neighborhoods should have housing and which demolition.” Elsewhere, the picture is less clear. In Detroit, some people are concerned that the city may see CDC initiatives as competition, rather than collaborators, in the city’s Detroit Works Project, an ambitious and multifaceted effort to rethink the city’s future. In Buffalo, N.Y., the city’s reluctance to acknowledge that it has become a smaller city has stymied the emergence of realistic, collaborative strategies.

This is unfortunate. A handful of one-shot community meetings or charrettes cannot substitute for the sustained effort of a strong CDC. Many CDCs can provide on-the-ground capacity and engagement with specific neighborhoods and communities that cannot be replicated by city government or replaced by any other public or private entity. Bringing this capacity and engagement to bear is critical if tough decisions about resources, priorities and directions are going to be made and turned into realistic strategies. As a growing number of cities recognize their new reality as shrinking cities and begin planning for that reality, CDCs will have to make sure that they have a seat at the table.

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