Category Archives: Real Estate

Confronting Urban Population Decline

Can I interest you in buying an entire block? West Village, Detroit

The fact that many American cities are experiencing significant population decline is old news.  This trend has been occurring since 1950, particularly in the older cities that were once part of the “Great American Manufacturing Belt” that stretched across the northern tier of the country from New England to just west of the Mississippi River.

What is not old news, however, is that many of these same cities are now experiencing serious problems with vacant and abandoned properties.

These problems are relatively new in many places, and unlike population loss per se, the loss of taxpaying households poses an existential threat to the fiscal healthof these cities.

Not only are these cities continuing to lose residents at an alarming rate, but they are now also losing households.  This means that they are losing housing units, which, in turn, means that they are losing much of their built environment.

Residential properties sit vacant and abandoned, as do the commercial properties that used to serve them.  The public infrastructure (streets, utilities, etc.) which used to knit these properties together into cohesive neighborhoods remains, but is increasingly underutilized.

While the infrastructure might be underutilized, it still needs to be maintained.  Schools, safety forces, public utilities, and sanitation services all need to be supported at levels that don’t shrink proportionately with the population.

In the future, residents will be paying a lot more in taxes for a lot less in services,unless a way is found to grow the population (and the tax base) again.

But why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?

In order to understand this, we need to know a bit more about how urban population decline actually works.


Vacant lots that once contained houses, York St., Akron

Understanding the Problem

This piece by Alex Ihnen on population change in St. Louis is one of the best posts that I’ve ever read on understanding urban population decline.

St. Louis is an excellent case study, for it has experienced the single largest percentage population decline of any major American city – shrinking 63% from its 1950 peak of 857,000 to its current population of 319,000.

In his piece, Ihnen argues that if policy is to be directed at growing the city’s population, we must understand more about the history of population decline, which factors led to the downturn, and think about what an increasing population would look like today.

The most important point that Ihnen makes is that a significant level of urban population decline experienced since the 1950s was inevitable (i.e. attributable to widespread demographic changes).  Chief among these is the rapid decline in average household size in the United States.

Think about what was going on around 1960.  Take an older, industrial city, like Cleveland, Detroit, or St. Louis, that is “built out” – that is, nearly all of the residential property in the city is built at the maximum development density that it is zoned for, and the city has very little, if any, available land upon which to build new housing.

At the same time you have several extremely consequential demographic trends occurring all at the same time:

  • Rising divorce rates
  • Rising age of first marriage
  • Rising life expectancy
  • Declining birth rates

These trends all began to emerge in the late 1950s, took deep root in the late 1960s, and continued virtually unabated up through the late-1990s.

So, set aside any preconceptions you have about the disadvantages of city living versus suburban living.

Forget, for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.

Focus instead on the profound social trends which occurred between 1960 and 1990.  Those involving:

  • Marriage (divorce and delayed marriage, resulting in more singles)
  • Health care (increased longevity, resulting in more widows and widowers)
  • Reproduction (the development of “The Pill” in 1960, and legalized abortion in 1973, resulting in less children).

The end result of these trends?  A much smaller average household size.

So, if these older cities were unable to build more housing units, they were going to shrink to a significant degree, regardless of the crime rate, or school quality, or “white flight”, or any of the other common explanations for urban population loss.

Remember that none of the aforementioned social trends happened in isolation.  They all happened simultaneously.

It is truly an astounding convergence of demographic trends.  From a historical perspective, it is a change in household structure the likes of which our nation has never seen.

Think about it – more single older adults (divorce); more single younger adults (delayed marriage); more widows and widowers (rising life expectancy); less children (declining birth rates).

Every single one of these trends implies that, all things being equal, the average household will be much smaller.

And that’s exactly what happened.  Imagine a city with 900,000 inhabitants and 300,000 households – for an average of three people per household.

Now, imagine that same city, decades later, with 600,000 inhabitants and 300,000 households – for an average of two people per household.

The implications are astounding.   This city could theoretically lose one-third of its population without even one additional vacant house or apartment, simply by dropping from an average household size of three to two.

Indeed, this is precisely what happened in older cities like St. Louis, which dropped from a population of 857,000 in 1950 to 319,000 in 2010.

While not all of this population loss was attributable to a decline in average household size, much of it was.  St. Louis’s average household size dropped from 3.1 people per household in 1950 to 2.2 people in 2010.

In fact, Ihnen estimates that decreasing average household size accounted for 46% of the city’s observed population loss between 1950 and 2010 – a far from inconsequential number.

Similar social trends were also occurring in suburban areas, but one mitigating factor was that these areas were being settled disproportionately by families with children.

Suburban areas also had lots of room to build new housing, while the core cities did not.  In a developing suburban area, it did not matter if your average household size shrank a bit between 1950 and 2010.  If you added an additional 10,000 housing units in that same time period, your community was going to grow – a lot.

The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century.

Yes, the interstate highway system, “white flight”, the desire for larger homes and larger yards, concerns about crime (real or perceived), etc. were all very important factors in why older cities shrank, and why suburban areas grew.  They still are.

But one of the most important factors (and certainly the most overlooked) was the simple fact that households everywhere were getting smaller, and population was only going to be able to grow in places where you could add households.

Unsurprisingly, these places were primarily new, suburban areas, outside of the central cities.

This fact should give urban advocates, city leaders, and urban residents some degree of comfort, for it demonstrates that a fair amount of urban population loss in the decades immediately following the 1950s was not really anyone’s “fault”.  Your city could have done everything right, but, given a static amount of housing, you were going to shrink.

Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time.

And yet…this explanation only takes us so far.

The explanatory power of average household size weakens substantially after the 1990s, when the demographic trends governing it began to stabilize, and as urban housing continued to “age-out”.


Vacant house, Van Dyke St., Detroit

Housing Supply and Demand in the 21st Century

It was not really until the 21st Century that we began hearing about, reading about, and witnessing first-hand an ever-expanding problem with vacant and abandoned properties in many older urban areas.

Prior to the 1990s, most older cities were shrinking without an appreciable or especially noticeable impact upon the built-environment – particularly in residential areas.

Commercial structures are another story, as many were abandoned beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, being as they are more sensitive to fluctuations in total population and household purchasing power.

Alarmingly, as the 21st Century dawned, many older cities began shrinking, not primarily as a result of national demographic trends (household size) or lifestyle preferences (suburban development), but simply due to the fact that many of them were losing their supply of marketable housing.

In short, the houses and apartments in these cities were getting old – too old to be marketable, in most cases, and not nearly enough was being done (or perhaps, could have been done) to replace them.

In some cities, this might have been due to an overall lack of demand, but it is hard to say that it was due to lack of demand for urban living, as such.

All we really know for sure is that there was a lack of demand for most of the product currently on the urban housing market – namely older houses with high front-end renovation costs, significant ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs, and many obsolete features – not enough closets, not enough electrical outlets, small kitchens and bathrooms, no garage, etc.

What we don’t know is whether or not newer, more modern homes might have been marketable had they been built, because in most older cities, they never werebuilt, so there is no way to test the hypothesis.

Maybe the demand wasn’t really there.

Maybe it was.

Maybe the perceived lack of demand was a self-fulfilling prophecy confirmed by a lack of marketable product.

In many places it was likely a combination of both a lack of supply and a lack of demand – how much it was of each, largely depends on the city, or even the neighborhood.

So it would appear that, all things being equal, there is a correlation between the amount of older housing that a city has and the degree of population loss that it has experienced.

In other words, cities with the highest percentage of old houses and apartments are likely to be the ones that are losing the most residents.

Or perhaps it is the other way around?

I decided to test this theory by obtaining data on housing age in every U.S. city that contains over 25,000 housing units.

Governing magazine wrote a fascinating piece on this recently that contained a treasure trove of interesting data.  I used these data in my analysis.

My working definition of “old housing” is housing units that were built prior to 1960.

1960 is a good demarcation for separating new housing from old.  Houses built before 1960 are over 50 years old, which is the point in a house’s life-cycle where ongoing maintenance costs begin to become quite significant.

1960 is also the year when housing and neighborhood design began to change significantly.

Prior to 1960, most houses were still built in a traditional, walkable neighborhood pattern, on a grid, with street lights and sidewalks, and access to public transportation; located in reasonable proximity to commercial and retail development.

After 1960, most neighborhoods were no longer built to conform to this pattern.

So what did I find?

In the United States today, there are 620 cities that contain at least 25,000 housing units.

Of these, 140 can be considered “older cities” with at least 50% of their housing stock built before 1960.

The vast majority of these older cities are located in the Northeast, the Great Lakes, and on the West Coast.  Very few of them are located in the South or the Intermountain West.

The 10 Fastest Shrinking Cities in the U.S.

1. St. Louis, MO (63% decline, 77% built pre-1960)
2. Detroit, MI (61% decline, 81% built pre-1960)
3. Youngstown, OH (61% decline, 77% built pre-1960)
4. Cleveland, OH (57% decline, 79% built pre-1960)
5. Gary, IN (55% decline, 63% built pre-1960)
6. Buffalo, NY (55% decline, 84% built pre-1960)
7. Pittsburgh, PA (55% decline, 75% built pre-1960)
8. Niagara Falls, NY (51% decline, 84% built pre-1960)
9. Flint, MI (48% decline, 70% built pre-1960)
10. Scranton, PA (47% decline, 76% built pre-1960)

I found a strong correlation (0.533) between the age of the housing (% of total units built prior to 1960) and the percentage of population lost since the city’s peak.

This finding is not particularly shocking, and to be sure, the correlation likely runs both ways.

That is, cities with a lot of old housing are often shrinking cities, because the old housing is not as marketable.

Conversely, shrinking cities often have a lot of old housing, because they are losing population and therefore don’t have lot of demand for new housing.

Regardless of the overall strength or direction of the correlation, this fact remains:

In the 21st Century, given today’s demographic trends, it is near-mathematically impossible for shrinking cities to ever grow again, without building new housing.

These cities have an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Much of the older housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and it is being torn down at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

These cities will continue to lose population unless they figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down.  They need to learn how to rebuild their neighborhoods from the ground up.

It all boils down to simple arithmetic: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less households, and less people.

No matter how great these cities are, no matter how many casinos or stadiums they build, no matter how safe they are, no matter how low their taxes are, no matter how much else they “do right”, they will inexorably continue to lose population if they don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing – and at a much faster rate than they are tearing houses down.

Why is new housing the only way to go?

The only possible means for a shrinking city to grow again are:

1) increase average household size

2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing

3) build new housing.

Option #1 is not going to happen anywhere in the United States (with the possible exception of places attracting high levels of immigration).  It flies in the face of a fifty-year long demographic trend – that of shrinking American household size, described earlier in this post.

Option #2 is possible, but in most cities it is exceedingly difficult.

Rehabilitating and renovating old houses and buildings is a costly proposition and is only feasible on a large scale in places where:  1) the overall demand for urban housing is high and the supply is low; and 2) the quality of the older housing is such that it is still marketable.

This strategy can work in places like New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston, where both sufficient demand exists, and where there is a large stock of under-utilized high-quality construction (much of it built prior to 1920) with historic character and value.

Where this strategy is not likely to work is in the classic shrinking cities of the Rust Belt – places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where overall demand is much lower, and where there is a large excess stock of vacant low-quality housing (much of built hastily, and rather poorly, between 1920 and 1960 for industrial workers).

Much of this housing, especially in smaller, working-class cities like Flint, Gary, and Youngstown is functionally-obsolete.  As much as our hearts may wish it to see preserved, our heads (and pocketbooks) will carry the day.

It is simply not worth saving.  There is far too much of it, there is far too little demand for it, and (the final nail in the coffin) so much of it has been vacant for so long that it is in wretched condition.

So that leaves us with Option #3.  Build brand-new housing.

Is this a major challenge?  You bet.

Building new housing in cities is often more expensive than building new housing in undeveloped areas (due to land acquisition, environmental mitigation, and demolition costs).

In many cities (again, frequently the fastest shrinking ones in the Rust Belt) building new housing is an uncertain market proposition.

In most of these markets, it has not been attempted on a large scale, and many developers are understandably reluctant to invest in rebuilding large-swaths of inner city neighborhoods, for fear that they will lose their shirts if sufficient demand does not materialize.

But what is the alternative?

A vicious-cycle of further decline, more blight, higher taxes, and more disinvestment.


Rolling with the punches: Kercheval-Parker Park, Detroit

Why Bother?

If they do not embark upon an innovative, cross-sector, comprehensive effort to build new housing, shrinking Rust Belt cities will face an existential social and economic crisis that will be far more costly (in both human and monetary terms) than the status quo.

I’ve written about this previously:

Regardless of what some advocates of regionalism might say, city boundaries are not arbitrary and meaningless.  Although some may claim that shrinking cities are no big deal as long as the metropolitan region overall is growing, central cities will continue to profoundly matter, especially to the people (often disproportionately poor) that remain.

Municipal boundaries are not irrelevant, whatever the regionalists may tell you. Economies may be regional, but in most of the nation’s fastest declining cities, government is not.  Municipal boundaries affect taxation, land use policy, public safety, education, public infrastructure, and the delivery of social services.

When a city’s population declines precipitously, the proportional demand for the public services that it provides shrinks less than its population, with the end result that its residents end up paying more in taxes, for less in services.  Even if this were not the case, it is expensive and (politically speaking) exceedingly difficult to scale-back and shrink long-term capital investments in public infrastructure – as “shrinking cities” like Detroit and Youngstown have discovered.

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, makes similar, extremely compelling points:

Cleveland may be about half as big, population-wise, as it was in 1970, but in inflation-adjusted dollars the cost of running the city is about the same…

Although Cleveland spends five times more in actual dollars today to serve a city with twice the population in 1970, Councilman Michael Polensek said city services are the worst since he took office in 1978.

“In all my years of public office, I’ve never experienced such a breakdown in the level of city services,” said Polensek. “Quality of life services – street repair, grass cutting, waste collection, caring for abandoned property, police protection – have never been this bad. And that includes when we were in default.”

Although the city has far fewer residents, it must pay to maintain an infrastructure built to support a million residents.

Yet, you hear precious little about the need to build new housing in most shrinking cities. There is certainly no comprehensive strategy, in most places, to actually doit.

Instead, we hear a lot about stadiums, casinos, convention centers, and hotels.

We hear a lot about these cities as places to play – but precious little about these cities as places to live.

I have even heard public officials remark on more than one occasion that residential development is a net liability, because residential development costs the city more in services than it generates in terms of tax revenue.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that the most profitable city would be one with no people living in it.

It’s sheer lunacy.  Talk about “destroying the village in order to save it.”

Furthermore, as Brent Larkin points out in the aforementioned column, shrinking cities are already paying to provide these services – what is missing are the people and the necessary tax base to pay for them.

Far too many cities in the Rust Belt have fatalistically resigned themselves to population loss.

It is a terrible long-term strategy.

James Howard Kunstler says it well:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape.

Yes, figuring out how to build new housing and re-populate our shrinking urban centers will be difficult.

But we have to try.

What is our alternative?

This is not just about bricks and mortar infrastructure, or civic pride.  It’s about people.

As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in our cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.

The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as metropolitan regions continue to sort themselves geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

As our core cities continue to be abandoned, the poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

That doesn’t sound like “The American Dream” to me.

Rust Belt cities are presently on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill, alone, to deal with the blight and disinvestment.

They are in a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that they don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

What we have on our hands is a vicious-cycle of decline, and disinvestment, and more decline.

What we need to create is a virtuous-cycle of investment, and renewal, and more investment.

In the Rust Belt, growing your city’s population is not about chasing a number, or “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Increasingly, it is going to be about survival.

Today’s political and economic reality is that no one from the federal government, the state, or the rest of the metropolitan region is going to step in and save these cities.

They are going to have to figure out how to do it themselves.


Renovated houses along Parker St., Detroit

Worrisome Trends in Akron

In every culture, you have a “creation myth” – a story you tell yourself (that may or may not be entirely true) about where you have been, where you are, and where you are going.

In Akron (the city that I live in, and love) our “creation myth” goes like this:

We were a world-renowned city, the global center of the rubber and tire industry, for roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th Century; we struggled mightily in the 1970s and 1980s; we began a comeback in the 1990s; and we have been on an upward trajectory ever since, outpacing most of our Rust Belt peers (minus the road bump of the 2008 recession).

There is a lot of truth to this myth, but like any unifying narrative, it glosses over some details that might get in the way.

Like our continued population loss, and our corresponding failure to figure out how to renew our community as a place to live.

To be clear:

We did weather the storm of the collapse of our primary industry far better than most Rust Belt cities did.

We have an amazing stock of high quality, older housing on the city’s west side that is likely to sustain it for years to come.

We are the least racially-segregated major city in Ohio, and one of the least-segregated older industrial cities in the entire U.S.

We have consistently economically outperformed every major city in Ohio (except Columbus), and have held our own compared to our Rust Belt peers nationwide.

We enjoy political and economic leadership that is the envy of most cities, and that has served us extraordinarily well throughout the aftermath of the collapse of the rubber and tire industry.

But much of what I discussed earlier about population decline in St. Louis applies directly to Akron.

With a current-day population of 199,000, we have now lost 91,000 people since we reached our peak population of 290,000 in 1960 (a 31% decline).

After losing only 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost 17,000 in the 2000s.

In 2010, we shrunk to below 200,000 for the first time since 1910.

So, since the beginning of the 21st Century, our population loss has actually accelerated, rather than decelerated – by a factor of three.

That’s concerning.

Even more worrisome is the fact that, since 2000, we have seen a significant decline in the number of households – for the first time since 1960.

Most of our shrinkage through 2000 was due to the changes in household size that I described at the beginning of this post.  These changes were still concerning, but they were not out of step with what was going on in most other older cities.

Almost unbelievably, between 1960 and 2000, we had the same number of households, despite the fact that we lost 73,000 people.

It’s really quite remarkable.

But since 2000, we have been losing people and households.

This is extremely concerning, because it is the loss of households that has directly contributed to our growing vacant and abandoned property problem and the erosion of our tax base.

Here are Akron’s numbers by decade.  They are dramatic:

Year       Population         Households        Avg. HH Size

1960          290,351                  90,004                    3.23

1970          275,425                  91,592                    3.01

1980          237,177                  90,576                    2.62

1990          223,019                  90,119                    2.47

2000          217,074                  90,143                    2.41

2010          199,110                  83,718                    2.38

So despite losing 73,000 residents, the number of households in Akron was consistent for 40 years.

But since 2000, we lost another 17,000 people and over 6,000 households.

Even worse, this unprecedented loss of households came at a time when average household size was starting to level off.  If we had been able to keep the same amount of households, we could have retained a lot of the people that we lost during this past decade.

In fact, if we had retained the same number of households, we would have lost less than 3,000 people in the last decade.

But we didn’t.

Maybe we couldn’t have retained these households.

Maybe we didn’t have the available housing to do it.


Brand new houses along Hickory St., Akron

Moving Forward

The 21st Century represents a true demographic turning point for our city.  Our loss of not just population, but now households, too, is a direct result of our using up all of the viable, marketable housing that we had, and our tearing down more housing than we have been able to rebuild.

Simply put – we are now at the place where we are physically unable to grow, because we are experiencing a net loss of housing – year after year, as it gets older and older.

On average, we tear down 500 houses every year in this city. On average, we build 10.

New residents can move to Akron, of course, but they will simply be replacing someone who already lives here.

We are playing “musical chairs” with our housing stock – one person replaces another, and every once in a while, another chair is taken away.

It is a very disturbing trend.

It is also a very underreported trend.  I had never seen this information until I pulled it from the census for this blog post.  I’m not sure that anyone else even knows this.

So what should we do?

We have to learn how to build new housing in this city – a lot of new housing.  And we have to learn how to market it well.

Rehabilitating old houses (where practical) will certainly help us, but my guess is that, even in a best case scenario, we will tear down five houses for every one that is renovated.

The houses that we have left are simply getting too old and obsolete.  The best ones, in the best neighborhoods, are already occupied and are being cared for.

I think Downtown’s future is as a mixed-use residential center, rather than as an office center.  This trend is already happening in many cities.  It is happening on a significant scale in Cleveland, as more and more office space is vacated and retrofitted as residential space.  We should intentionally support that same thing here.

We have lots of undeveloped and underutilized land in this city that could be re-purposed as new densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhoods.  Especially if we got creative.

Rolling Acres Mall, for example, could be redeveloped as a huge, new residential neighborhood.  I’ve heard talk of reusing it as an industrial park, but I’ve never heard anyone mention the possibility of redeveloping it as an actual neighborhood.

We should think about it.

We have schools that are shutting down.  The former Perkins Middle School, for example, could be redeveloped as a cluster of new homes in an already quite attractive and convenient residential neighborhood.

We have a lot of underutilized parks in this city.  Grace Park, for example, has been a crummy park for over 60 years.  My grandfather, a former APD Captain used to tell me about how he would bust drug dealers and prostitutes there, even back in the 1950s.

Grace Park could probably be shrunk down to 1/3 of its current size, with the other 2/3 of the existing park redeveloped as a new, densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhood.

The remaining 1/3 of the existing park could be preserved, re-sized, and with new adjacent residential properties, might actually see some use.

It’s an extremely attractive site – located immediately adjacent to Downtown Akron, the University of Akron, and Summa Akron City Hospital.

Some of these ideas are probably infeasible.  They might even be kooky.

There would be lots of legal, administrative, and marketing hurdles involved in transforming an infamous Dead Mall like Rolling Acres into a vibrant urban neighborhood.

Grace Park was bequeathed to the City of Akron by Simon Perkins (Akron’s founder) himself, and God only knows what kinds of legal and administrative hurdles would be involved in violating that near-sacred covenant.

But even if these ideas prove to be crazy, there have to be other creative and innovative ideas out there for rebuilding our city.

Not enough people are publicly thinking about this, or proposing audacious ideas about how to grow again.

But this is the kind of thinking that actually repopulates your city.

As important as they are, a stray infill house here and there (like the ones pictured above) is simply not going to get the job done.

The oldest neighborhoods, like West Hill, or University Park, that are closest to the core of the city may eventually begin to redevelop as attractive residential areas, as Highland Square has begun to.

But, at the same time, many of the older, formerly stable working-class neighborhoods like Kenmore, North Hill, and Goodyear Heights will begin to “age-out”, as their housing becomes increasingly obsolete and difficult to maintain. Ellet and Firestone Park may not be that far behind.

Much of West Akron will continue to age gracefully and is likely to remain a stable, attractive area for years to come, but we can’t rely on it forever.

We are likely to experience a lot of ups-and-downs in terms of neighborhood revitalization and decline over the next several decades.

We will probably need half-a-dozen (or more) different redevelopment strategies for our neighborhoods, depending on which neighborhood we are talking about.

We will need to learn how to bring the public sector, the private sector (specifically developers, home builders, and realtors), non-profits, and residents together in order to strategically, intentionally, and creatively rebuild each one of our neighborhoods.

It will be challenging, but we can do it – working together.

As a community, we need to adopt some bold and audacious goals involving population growth and residential redevelopment.

I, for one, would like to see us grow back to a population of 250,000 before I die.

In the meantime, we could start with a more modest goal of growing our population back above 200,000. Given current trends, it is not going to be as easy as it sounds.

If we could get one in five homebuyers in Summit County to end up purchasing a house in Akron (who would not have otherwise) we could get back above 200,000 – provided that we are building enough new housing that we are not simply playing musical chairs with the existing housing.

Attracting one in five prospective homebuyers in Summit County to Akron is doable, and that includes families with children.

To those who would offer knee-jerk arguments that prospective homebuyers would never send their kids to the Akron Public Schools, or be willing to pay for private schools, it is important to point out that, today, less than 30% of American households are even composed of families with children.

I would also argue that social problems like poor public school performance are every bit as much an effect of urban population decline as they are a cause of it.

Rebuilding the middle class in Akron would do far more to restore the performance of the Akron Public Schools than additional funding or an imaginary set of better teachers would.

If we can learn how to build new housing, and attract new residents to Akron, we could begin to mitigate our abandoned and vacant property problem; begin to restore our tax base; and begin to create new markets for entrepreneurship and small-business development in our neighborhoods.

It would create new opportunities, new jobs, and provide more people with a wonderful place to live.

It would also leave plenty of residential growth to go around for the remainder of Summit County.  After all, the City of Akron still accounts for 37% of the county’s population, so attracting 20% of the new homebuyers is far from an unreasonable or an inequitable goal.

Restoring the residential housing market in Akron would also be good for taxpayers throughout Summit County.  As property values decline in the urban core, it is suburban homeowners who end up having to make up the difference.

I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to figure out how to do this.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.

–By Jason Segedy. Originally published at his blog Notes from the Underground.


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Does your community suffer from power pole blight?

I don’t know about your community, but here in Greater Lansing there seems to be an intense love affair between public utilities and power poles. “Holy pincushions, Batman, you’d think they’d all been raised by a family of porcupine.”

In some places, the primary roadway corridors look like a long, linear parade of power pole blight. Sadly, all too often this leaves communities in the region with disjointed and unpleasant streetscape aesthetics to viagra for sale overcome. I know Greater lansing is not alone, as I have seen power pole blight across many parts of the Rust Belt. the middle of a roundabout?
Seriously…in the middle of a roundabout?

Attempts have been made to convince area utilities to remove portions of the visual blight and bury the power lines, but that is usually greeted with consternation and rebuttals on the costliness of such actions. If the community or property owners wish to pay for burying the lines, they would be glad to oblige. As a result, instead of a modern and efficient electrical grid, numerous locations end up with a cobbled together third-world styled electrical grid that struggles to maintain service during ice, snow, and wind storm events.

One would think that after a certain number of repetitive power outages and emergency repairs to broken, damaged, and fallen power lines, electric utilities would initiate routine burying programs on their own to reduce the number of outages and their firm’s long-term maintenance costs. Throw in discount viagra regular tree trimming efforts and eventually burying power lines doesn’t look so expensive anymore. Apparently the bean counters differ on that assessment.

Years ago, power utilities were often active participants in economic development, community enhancement, redevelopment, and revitalization efforts. It was seen as a way to increase the utility’s customer base. Today, some utilities can be a stubborn impediment to new initiatives and progressive streetscape design ideas. Whether this is a function of the short-term profit mindset or local firms being bought out or merging with multinationals is not entirely clear. Unfortunately, whatever the reason, local communities across the Rust Belt and other parts of the nation are left with paying the price of power pole/line blight with unsightly pincushionesque landscapes dotting the horizon.

No one is advocating for the burying of the entire power line infrastructure. That would be viagra for men impractical. But, in those areas where the power poles have become overbearing and omnipresent, or in places where redevelopment and revitalization efforts are trying to get underway, burying the power lines makes sense. As stakeholders in the community and the Rust Belt generally, it is hoped the region’s utilities will join any and all localized efforts to achieve a more aesthetically pleasant streetscape and overall community vision.

– Rick Brown

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On the Waterfront: The Possible Future of Youngstown's Riverfront

For many legacy cities in the former Industrial Heartland of America, waterfronts were never much more than alien spaces. Cargo shipping, steel mills, chemical companies, and other industrial concerns ruled rivers and lakefronts. Manufacturing enterprises even rendered waterways into toxic dumping grounds in the decades before the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act. This is especially true of the former steel city of Youngstown, Ohio.

For most of the twentieth century, miles of massive steel mills covered both banks of the Mahoning River, which snakes through the city of Youngstown. The city’s highly developed downtown was surrounded by the maw of local industry for nearly 80 years. By the 1980s, most of the mills had been silenced and the area around the Market Street Bridge—the main gateway to the downtown—was well on its way to becoming deindustrialized. Wean United, one of the last standing large industrial facilities near the bridge, closed in 1982. The Wean complex continued to operate as an industrial space for a variety of companies until its complete abandonment in 2011.

The former Wean facility is now a 300,000 square foot brownfield site sitting next to what is presumably prime real estate on the Mahoning River. The city had been attempting to find new tenants for the building; however recent negotiations with two companies fell through. If the city does not find a tenant for the site, the building itself will come down—opening up the waterfront to a newly revitalized downtown. Youngstown recently received $1,775,418 of Clean Ohio funds for environmental remediation of the site. It’s estimated the clean up will take at least six months, and the funds themselves must be used by December of 2014.

Youngstown officials have indicated the site is to initially become a parking lot. The entire idea of a parking lot represents a shameful lack of imagination. Another prime site, the vacant hole on West Federal Street that once housed the State Theater, is also slated to become a parking lot. This begs the question: What are some REAL uses for the newly opened riverfront?

Water bodies are prime physical assets for cities. In a report entitled Restoring Prosperity to Ohio’s Cities, the Brookings Institute called for creating statewide “Walkable Waterfronts” initiatives in Ohio. The report mentions Youngstown specifically. Of course various waterfront development efforts are either in the planning stages, or are already underway, in a wide variety of legacy cities from Trenton to Toledo. If at all feasible, creative uses for recreation and economic development should be considered for the downtown riverfront. In fact the nearby city of Warren has already set an example for what could be done in Youngtown.

Warren’s Riverwalk project set out to remake the waterfront adjacent to the downtown. The project has already opened up the river area and connected it to the courthouse, which is a high traffic center in the downtown. At the corner of West Market and Mahoning Avenue are a veteran’s memorial and a log cabin, built where the first schoolhouse in Warren once stood. The city installed the Perkins Park amphitheater right below the monument, which now hosts seasonal concert events under the name “River Rock at the Amp.” A pedestrian-bicycle path was installed in the late 1990s. The Riverwalk skirts the Mahoning as it leads through Perkins Park and eventually leads to Packard Park. The entire area has become a showcase for the city of Warren

There has been some riverfront development in Youngstown. On the lower west side at the edge of downtown on the water is the B&O Station Boxcar Lounge and the Rust Belt Brewery. The B&O hosts a number of events throughout the season, including Artists of the Rust Belt, which features local work, and the B&O Night Market—that serves as a place for vendors to sell produce, baked goods, and other edibles.

To the east of the Wean site is the Covelli Center (formerly the Chevrolet Center.) Built on the site of a demolished steel mill in 2005, the center attracts a number of high profile events per year. Additional parking could indeed accommodate any overflow from Covelli, but there are a number of better ideas for the Wean site.

This year, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation brought in a group of design students from the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany to propose possible new uses for a number of vacant sites in the city, Wean being one of them. The proposals included an indoor sports facility (probably cost prohibitive) and an outdoor skate park/BMX area. Skateboarding in particular is very popular in Youngstown, and there are no skate parks within the city limits.

Another student proposal is to build an industrial heritage park. When the city finally began to address the future of the Wean site, the term “eye sore” became common whenever referring to the complex. Local industrial historian Rick Rowlands questioned the term and appropriately referenced the site’s “unique place in industrial history.” At the very least an historical marker and some information about the history of the William Tod Company (the first company at the site) and Wean United would be in order.

Youngstown’s waterfront could be designed as a hike/bike trail, as the city mentions in Youngstown 2010 Plan: “Mill Creek MetroParks operates a trail west of Youngstown that runs from Green Township in southern Mahoning County to the Trumbull County line, where it continues in various states of development along an abandoned rail line to Ashtabula. The Stavich bike trail begins southeast of Youngstown and runs from Struthers to New Castle links to trail connections to Washington. The missing link between these trails is through Youngstown.” The 2010 plan alluded to connecting Mill Creek Park to Spring Commons (AKA Mr. Peanut Bridge.) This could be further linked to the Wean site by a hike/bike trail, making the downtown much more amenable to recreation, as well as significantly greening a currently blighted area.

However, activities close to, but not too near the water, seem to be the most sensible option, for one very good reason.

The steel industry’s ugly legacy of environmental destruction is still present in the Mahoning River. While the mills operated the river never froze, even during the coldest winters. A wide variety of heavy metals are still present in the contaminated riverbed. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, right up until the late 1970s hundreds of thousands of pounds of oils, grease, and even zinc were routinely dumped EVERY day into the Mahoning. Sediment in the river is contaminated with carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also carcinogenic and have been linked to physiological abnormalities in animals and humans.

The Army Corps recommends the dredging of 750,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the riverbed and from the shoreline. To put those numbers in perspective, that’s a mound of sediment one yard wide by one yard high that would stretch roughly from Youngstown to New York City. The estimated cost of such a project approaches at least $150 million, if not substantially more. The Ohio Department of Health issued contact bans in the late 1980s, advising people not to come into contact with the water, nor to eat any fish from the river. Any activities involving direct contact with the water or with shoreline sediment should not be part of any future development plans.

Last but not least, both sides of the Mahoning riverfront are sites of homeless camps large and small. Immediate consideration needs to be given to relocating these individuals to safe housing. Across the river from Wean, the bottling house for the old Renner Brewery is still standing. It needs to be demolished and the persons living in it humanely relocated as well.

Brownfield waterfront development is a complicated endeavor under any circumstance. Downtown Youngstown’s plan should encompass some form of riverfront development besides just surface parking. Community input, environmental considerations, and safe recreational designs should be part of any plan for the riverfront that survives the planning stages; this is a crucial piece for the future of downtown development. Unless the community lobbies for creative uses of the site, it’s assured that the city will install a parking lot, and despite what officials might say, it will likely be permanent. Let’s not allow a botched plan for the riverfront to impede the future prosperity of the downtown.

–Sean Posey

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Shared Responsibility for Detroit's Woes


As a Michigander for the past 21 years, I’ve heard my share of Detroit criticisms, jokes, and put downs, both from within and outside the Great Lakes State. While fingers can be  pointed at the lack of past civic and political leadership in Detroit, our collective actions (or lack thereof) can certainly share in the responsibility. Some may scoff at such a notion, but here’re a few reasons why:

  • As a nation we elected leaders who adopted a tax code and laws that advocated, promoted, and accelerated flight from cities and suburban sprawl. Many in this nation continue to support such policies. Granted, this affects every city, but that doesn’t mean it was beneficial for them unless they had scads of excess land for new subdivisions or the ability to annex freely.
  • As a nation, we collectively turned our backs on inner cities and the residents thereof many years ago, only seeing fit to reverse course when the notion of revitalization became profitable.
  • As a state, Michigan has some of the most arcane home rule laws that created thousands of 36 square mile “kingdumbs” (pun intended) that fight with each other like cats and dogs and seldom do the right thing.
  • This nation very nearly turned its collective back on the auto industry due to political self-interest.
  • As a state and nation we allowed expressways, poorly placed factories, urban renewal projects, sports stadiums, and other projects to carve up and displace perfectly healthy inner city neighborhoods, leaving a tattered and disjointed landscape.
  • Residents/politicians living in outstate Michigan from Detroit would short-sightedly say, act, and vote as if Detroit was not their problem too.
  • In Southeast Michigan, leaders and residents alike outside of Wayne County often could care less what happened south of Eight Mile.
  • One of the best interurban transit systems in the nation was torn up and replaced by diesel-belching buses that have as many endearing qualities as a lump of coal.
  • Corporations ran away from the city in the ’60s and ’70s…with some finally seeing the light of their actions and returning to Detroit in the ’00s and ’10s.
  • Half of Detroit’s professional sport franchises left for the ‘burbs with one, the Pistons, still playing practically closer to Flint than Detroit.
  • Far too many lenders and insurance companies red-lined inner city neighborhoods.
  • Shady lenders who offered inner city loans foreclosed on homeowners the first chance they got.
  • Absentee landlords let their properties decline into disrepair and blight.
  • Politicians shied away from making the tough decisions, and rhetoric replaced reason in far too many discussions and decisions concerning Detroit.
  • Too many people in Southeast Michigan acted like the city was an island unto itself, when, like it or not, their collective futures have been inexorably linked to Detroit’s fate.
  • Up until recent years, the national media tended to solely focus on the bad news  about Detroit. There are many great things about Detroit, and piling on does nothing to reverse problems: it only reinforces misperceptions and stereotypes.

Shall I go on?

– Rick Brown


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Questioning Cleveland's Undying Faith in Development

Cleveland is a real estate town, someone once told me. We’re home to Forest City Enterprises, Developers Diversified. Real estate development is part of the culture here and often seen as the highest form of economic development, probably just sort of by default, without thinking about it.

We’re just emerging from the biggest real estate bust in a generation, but the lust for development doesn’t seem to have abated. Economic development officials have taken to touting how downtown Cleveland, or Cleveland, is currently seeing $5 ($7 $12?) billion — as if that were indisputable evidence the city is rebounding.

A big chunk of that is public money. Cleveland just cut the ribbon on a $500 million new convention center (the last administration’s “save the city” project). That is not something civic boosters typically make a point of. And that’s a project I feel awfully leery about. Was $500 million for a convention center the best use of public money? It’s too late now, I guess, to debate that. The point is, in Cleveland, public officials and economic development professionals are very focused on development. Sometimes I wonder how thoughtful, or wise, that is.

Cleveland is getting ready to make another major public investment in the name of development. This project is called the “Opportunity Corridor” and it’s a 3-1/2 mile road through an area called “the Forgotten Triangle,” an area of Cleveland that has seen more abandonment than any other part of the city. The project — a $350 million project funded in large part by the state — is to spur development. Project proponents are pretty clear about that.

There are 1,000 acres of vacant land around the proposed road, much of it brownfields, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the lead advocate for the project, pictures it redeveloped as manufacturing space. Billions of dollars in payroll, they have projected. The fact that the project won’t actually be that useful for city residents, from a transportation perspective, well, that’s sort of a non-issue, or at the least, a less important issue than this prospect of development everyone is so focused on. The fact is, development — developing these abandoned acres — is seen as a top civic priority. Improving transportation options for Clevelanders, just isn’t.

The problem with this is, if Cleveland uses its transportation money to spur development, and not improve transportation, transportation in Cleveland — and in turn quality of life for residents — will suffer. It would be one thing to use transportation money to spur development if Clevelanders’ transportation needs were unquestionably already well met. But that is certainly not the case. So transportation and quality of life is being subverted for development, without really even a discussion taking place about whether this is wise. Why? It is just taken as a matter of faith in Cleveland that development is the most important thing.

I was complaining about this on Twitter recently and one of my followers asked: Is Cleveland growing? To which I replied: Ha! His response was: If Cleveland isn’t growing, it’s not really development, “but a spatial change in active/abandoned land distribution.” Which I thought was a pretty compelling point.

The idea that investing $350 million in new highway infrastructure will create new manufacturing jobs, seems awfully optimistic to me. There are plenty of brownfields that have been cleaned up by the city of Cleveland on the west side and all over the city that are waiting for a buyer. And it makes sense: manufacturing isn’t exactly booming (even though it has rebounded some since the recession).

Transportation projects, I think, will really only “create” jobs to the extent that they result in efficiencies that improve productivity pretty measurably. Now, back in maybe the 1930s, adding a highway in Cleveland probably would have improve efficiencies pretty dramatically, enough to spur a lot of jobs. These days, we have a lot of road connections already. There are places with convenient highway access all over the state and the country.

Frankly, I don’t see what will be so special about this space, that manufacturing businesses will come flocking. This road also will not produce tremendous efficiency gains. I was debating on WCPN recent with the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Deb Janik how many minutes this would shave off a trip to the Cleveland Clinic from the suburbs. (I said 3 minutes, she said that was low but did not provide a higher figure.)

Anyway, this will be another $350 million the GCP can add to their total development pricetag for the region, even though it’s public money, and borrowed money at that. And that is how we measure progress around here, so Deb Janik and Frank Jackson and John Kasich and all the other political officials that were involved in this can high five each other and consider it a success. After all, shovels will break ground. Construction firms will get contracts.

Will the project improve people’s lives though? That is harder to measure. Other cities — for example I was just in Salt Lake City — are using their transportation dollars to create walkable, livable, urban communities, to improve job access and improve environmental outcomes. They’re doing that by investing in light rail and streetcars and “cultural trails” and a while variety of innovative, forward-looking things. They’re trying to attract talent. Trying to reach, not these illusive unmoored manufacturing firms were so fond of chasing in Ohio, but talented people, knowledge workers, etc. It’s sort of, you might say, a 21st Century strategy.

Cleveland lost 17 percent of its population in the last 10 years. I think it’s time we put a little more focus on meeting residents’ needs, improving quality of life. Somehow there never seems to be enough money for that, but we can always find money for the next big silver-bullet development.

We’ll attach a figure to it and say the city is rebounding. That figure will be a dollar number that sounds good. I wonder how these projects would be different if the numbers were were touting were poverty rates, or infant mortality rates, or job access rates or air quality measures instead. But those kinds of numbers are more important, they’re harder to boost and they don’t tell a very compelling story right now about Cleveland’s “rebound.”


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Cleveland's "Opportunity Corridor" Fiasco in Memes

Cleveland is preparing to build a $350 million highway through some of its poorest neighborhoods. anti diabetic pills This pet project of some of the region’s elites has been cynically named “the Opportunity Corridor.” Local writer Mansfield Frazier helpfully explains the “opportunity” part: it gives “white folks an opportunity to drive to the Cleveland Clinic without seeing any black folks.”

This project stinks. At more than $100 million per mile, it’s an extravagant highway project in pharmacy symbol a state that’s out of money. It’s going to result in the destruction of 90 homes and more than a dozen businesses (the vast majority owned by minorities). It’s pretty much right out of the 1960s valtrex “urban renewal” playbook — nevermind that highways have drained wealth out of Cleveland neighborhoods for decades.

This guduchi online project was born — as all admirable projects are — imitrex online by a group of businessmen from the Greater Cleveland Partnership, including Plain Dealer publisher Terry Eggars (whose skillful handling of the biaxin Plain Dealers buy mestinon online finances should leave us all reassured.)

This whole thing is so infuriating, sildenafil citrate side effects so unjust, so Cleveland, I had to give it the meme treatment.

You should make your own Opportunity Corridor meme. Here’s a blank photo of Terry Eggars. Here’s a link to Meme Maker.

Also tell NOACA to leave the Opportunity Corridor off the TRAC list.


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Repurposing “streets with no name”


In a number of cities, there are certain derelict streets that are nearly denuded of dwellings or businesses. Desolate and forlorn, these streets resemble something out of a post war apocalypse. Detroit may be the poster child du jour of such stark and sad emptiness, but there are many other examples across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. What to do with neglected streets has long been a source of planning discussion and conjecture. In some instances entire abandoned neighborhoods have or are being converted to urban agriculture or community gardens. However, this avid bicycle commuter has another suggestion for a few of these lowly streets without names – repurpose them to active transportation byways.

Quite often bicycle routes consist of abandoned railroad corridors, canal towpaths, or shared lanes in a sea of motor vehicles. I, like many other cyclists, am not necessarily enamored with having to pedal cheek-to-cheek with four-wheeled motorized metal missiles. Seems no matter the efforts to stave off accidents and injury, the metal missiles will always win the contest. The other problem is that there are a finite number of old railroad or canal corridors to choose from, so many populations go un or underserved.

Hence, if a street is already underutilized and virtually desolate, then why not just finish the job? Why not consider purchasing or re-accessing those land uses that have currently sole access to the particular street and then repurpose the entire street into an active transportation byway serving bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers, roller-bladers, Segway users, and others?

In certain instances, “streets with no name” could be converted to mass transit corridors akin to busways. Needless to say, not every desolate street or remnant neighborhood would be appropriate for such a transformation, but I would be willing to bet that in certain cities and in certain locations, there are some excellent opportunities just waiting for foresighted leaders to actively pursue this idea.


Converting an existing street would also seem to be an easier/effective/efficient/economical way to expand a city’s active transportation infrastructure rather than wholly design, acquire, and build a completely new route. Given the extent of economic decline that would precipitate a “street with no name,” it would be hard to imagine any land acquisition costs being a significant impediment. Lastly, necessary public utilities along the byway along the could remain accessible for care, maintenance, and serve the revitalized


The short-term goals of establishing active transportation byways are to:

· enhance the city’s and region’s active transportation resources;

· reduce the city’s and region’s carbon footprint;

· improve overall community health and fitness;

· reinvigorate the sense of place;

· to rebuild community pride; and

· infuse economic energy and cultural vibe.


In the longer-term, the goal of such a repurposing enterprise would be to effectively stymy and then to reverse the decline found along these desolated streets and their adjoining neighborhoods by utilizing active transportation corridors as the conduit.

Am I missing or overlooking something here? Any thoughts or feedback on these ideas would be appreciated.

– Rick Brown

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