Monday, March 22, 2010

Empty Lots or Empty Houses: Assets or Liabilities?

A recent article in the Saginaw News (Red Tape Delays Using a Back Hoe to Make Historic Saginaw Houses History, 3/20/2010) discussed challenges in the demolition of abandoned 19th century homes on N. Jefferson (Saginaw’s Northeast Side) in order to make way for a “Green Zone.”

As a resident of the city of Saginaw who lives amongst abandoned buildings, I want to know: How is the proposed “Green Zone” any different than the multitude of empty lots already in existence in Saginaw? How will such a zone positively impact perceptions of our community? How will such a zone attract much-coveted new residents into the city? More importantly, has the future impact of extensive demolition of possibly historical structures been thoroughly looked at, or is this just a temporary fix?

I want to know – I think anyone living in the city has a right to know – what city leaders see such activity achieving in the next two decades (as opposed to the possible short-term changes in perception within the community that will only impact the next local elections).

How will more empty lots be useful in revitalizing the city’s challenged neighborhoods?

Senior citizens who own the homes they have lived much of their lives in are now in danger of losing said homes to foreclosure due to back taxes. These senior citizens are vital heads to be counted in the census this year and they have been productive residents of this city in their prime earning (and taxpaying) years. How will widespread demolition boost the quality of their lives?

Monies at the city’s disposal for neighborhood revitalization are only available to individuals with a household income of less than $19,000 on the stipulation that they own their home, the home is properly insured and all taxes and water bills are up to date. If one’s income is above $19,000, there is a good chance one does not need assistance in repairing one’s home. If one’s income is below $19,000 and one’s house is in desperate disrepair then it is highly unlikely that such things as keeping the house properly insured or the taxes current are even a blip on the family’s radar. At that point food and heat in the winter are much bigger issues.

Another concern with the above mentioned funds is that they might possibly only be available if the homeowner agrees to have his or her house re-sided, original windows replaced, original banisters replaced to meet current code and the removal or covering of lead-bearing elements (which could include original woodwork that has been painted or varnished). What is left of the historic aesthetic of a once intact house is then difficult to find. The charm and personality that attracts so many to live in an old home have now been removed making the property less appealing inside as well as from the street.

It would seem that the way in which grant/stimulus monies are being governed and property taxes are being levied in some cases are going to lead to more properties on the city’s dangerous building list. So it would seem the demolition of structures currently on the dangerous buildings list will only make way for more structures to be added to this same list as the elderly are forced to move elsewhere and those who desire to live in the city’s historic neighborhoods cannot get access to funds required to keep their homes from falling into decay. When will this cycle end? What will happen to Saginaw’s inner city neighborhoods over the next decade? What will happen to the city if these neighborhoods do not recover viability as residential districts?

It is possible that any city official or resident could reverse the questions I have asked to demand how empty structures could be any more of an asset than empty lots. The individual turning those questions back would likely win a prize at a high school debate meet. But this is not high school. This is not a debate meet. This is the community we live in and it is time that any inhabitant – official or resident – in any of the city’s challenged neighborhoods needs to look seriously across the street or over the back fence before making decisions that are irreversible.

Much of Saginaw was built up from a wealthy economy that will never be seen in this region again. What has been bequeathed to us from that era is all we have to leverage our community into its next cycle of life. These buildings are only here until they are demolished. The wealth will never again exist in this region to build such structures as the home of the Castle Museum, the former Bancroft Hotel, the Potter Street Station (second only in size to the great central station in Detroit) or the homes on N. Jefferson referenced in the recent Saginaw News article.

Detroit is pitted with areas that were once bustling residential and business districts which might now – after years of systematic demolition – fall under the description of “Green Zones.” These former neighborhoods aren’t terribly green; rather, they appear barren, desolate and depressing with absolutely nothing to recommend them to new residents or business owners.

It is worth looking again at our possibly dangerous buildings and considering whether it might not be worth removing front steps and boarding windows and doors to make structures less of a risk and provide time (and city cooperation) for/with residents to attempt to provide solutions for the structures within sight of their own front doors. Demolishing these structures now and thinking about the future of the districts they once stood in at a later date seems irresponsibly irreversible.

There is no easy fix for neighborhoods whose hearts, for one reason or another, have stopped beating, but one thing is indisputable: Empty buildings have a greater chance of attracting new businesses and residents than do empty lots.


Terri said...

You are so right! I know there are homes that are no longer structurally sound, but many are sound and potential buyers or current home owners, should be supported in their efforts to restore the homes that are salvageable. Just today I received a phone call from a woman who currently lives in NY and is interested in looking at the home located on the corner of Millard and Owen. She wants a home like this. Please, Dear City of Saginaw, help the people in their efforts to bring these historic homes back to the glory they once had and be very certain that if a home is being demolished it is with good cause.

Terri Miller

Nicholas said...

Without structures Saginaw will further hamper its ability to return. Detroit has gone down a path of systematic neighborhood destruction, but with few exceptions these areas tend to be of lower quality housing. Those few cases such as Brush Park a neighborhood of stately mansions dating from the 1880's just across I-75 from downtown that was destroyed by neglect show us that once something is lost it is much harder to start over again. Patchy redevelopment in a suburban style has been met with limited success because people cannot see past the "green belt" that the neighborhood has become, which really resembles empty barren lots more than anything like a natural state. And if you want housing like that it is much cheaper to do so in the suburbs. Furthermore Detroit is a different beast because of its sheer size being 140 square miles and largely developing after the automobile, its density was for the most part always low, Saginaw being a older is a much denser city and although smaller it has always been relatively dense, in its heyday the roughly 18 square miles would have been quite full of people and vibrant life. Essentially the city does not have the ability to survive shrinking the way Detroit can. If you remove what you have you will destroy the dense old world urban fabric that makes the city unique and livable. The city will find itself in an uncomfortable state attempting to be the township which it can never become because it is not in its nature. Some cities can afford to shrink but Saginaw must instead focus on how to harness its physical form because shrinking physically is not an option, and doing what has been done to Downtown Saginaw is not a path to revival, if you want to check that fact just go there and see, demolition does not bring success, but I don't have to say that you live there.

Nicholas Piotrowski
Architecture Student
University of Detroit Mercy

Mary said...

I love the old homes in the Cathedral district and it would be a shame to see them demolished. You make many good points in your article and I heartily agree that the allocation of grant money to only people who are current on their taxes when they have an income of less than 19,000 a year is a woeful hindrance.

Debbie said...

I agree! We do have so many wonderful older historic buildings and homes that just need the right people to restore them and bring back their beauty! We should be so lucky to have people interested in moving here!
It would be a darn shame to see just a bunch of empty and run down lots thru-out the city. I am a Professional Photographer living in the Cathedral District who very much loves and appreciates historic structures! Our house was built in 1876, and has many stories to tell and lots of beautiful spaces:)

Deborah Besanson
Hilton Photography

Shadow of the Cathedral said...

I am in no way advocating a complete stop of demolition in the city, but we *do* need a moderation between the State's desire to protect historic structures and the city's need - a dire need - to get a solution into motion that will help curtail legitimate urban blight.

I cannot say too often that the city cannot attract residents and/or businesses with empty lots.

AND, a green space is not merely an empty space. I would be very interested in hearing how the city proposes to manage the empty lots it intends to create through demolition.

Debbie said...

I don't want to loose any historic structures in the city! espescially in our neighborhood!

We do need to have something to attract people and business's here. Plus we need to keep the young here..oh that's another story!

Michael said...

I agree with not tearing down our old houses and buildings but rather boarding them up and removing the stairs if possible without taking away from their historical character. Good question, how will the city of Saginaw take care of these green zones? Don't they ask residents now to take the time to mow any empty lots next to them? I believe in the Cathedral District and any potential that might arise from our empty buildings and homes. I live in the New Amadore Apartments and love the area.