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.

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.

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