Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Busting blight

Toledo’s problems with blight are still manageable — if the city acts now


On Sumner Street in South Toledo, this old couch, overgrown greenery, and an abandoned house are examples of blight.

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For anyone who still needs convincing, The Blade’s report on blight — The Ugly Truth About Toledo — graphically showed that Toledo shares the urban problems of Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and central cities nationwide.

Whether or not local politicians call Toledo’s blight problem a crisis is irrelevant. What matters is that blight and population loss threaten to undermine the city’s future. More important, the problems here are still manageable — if Toledo’s leaders act now.

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City government, partnering with nonprofits, block clubs, and other community groups, should craft a comprehensive plan to demolish dangerous buildings, retain decent housing stock, and plan for a smaller and greener metropolis.

Mayor D. Michael Collins should lead such efforts, creating a sense of urgency and optimism. He can start by stop using phrases such as “urban death spiral,” which simply make people feel helpless. Moreover, the mayor’s response to The Blade’s report has, so far, been defensive, which won’t help the city move forward.

We all know Toledo is much more than blight. Without corrective measures, however, it will grow, sinking property values, accelerating an exodus to the suburbs, eroding the tax base, and creating additional safety problems and fire hazards. Reversing those trends is especially important now, as a redeveloping downtown starts to pull young people back into the city and the region seeks to brand and redefine itself.

Detroit, with roughly 100,000 vacant residential lots, provides a cautionary tale that should set off alarm bells here. Once a city of nearly 2 million, Motown has lost nearly two-thirds of its population over the last 50 years. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, Detroit lost 25 percent of its people.

At least one-third of the city’s 139 square miles are empty — and some east-side neighborhoods are 80 percent vacant. Nothing in Toledo compares to the vast tracts in Detroit that make up some of the nation’s most ravaged and abandoned neighborhoods.

Still, the post-World War II shift of people and capital from large cities to their suburbs, as well as the decline of lower-skilled manufacturing jobs that built a broad and prosperous middle class, has made America’s great cities, including Toledo, smaller and poorer. Once-vibrant urban neighborhoods are now laced with vacant lots and abandoned houses — a trend accelerated by the recent mortgage crisis.

Toledo fared better than most cities during the 1970s and 1980s, but middle-class flight, the exodus of major employers, shrinking tax bases, blight, poverty, crime, and — yes — incompetence at the highest levels of local government have reshaped the city’s landscape over the last two decades.

Reverse trends

It’s time to reverse those trends while there’s still time. Teaming city code inspectors with police officers, as Mr. Collins has proposed, to more aggressively enforce nuisance and code violations makes sense. So does changing state laws and local policies to make it easier for property owners to avoid foreclosure.

Neighborhood residents, volunteers, and youth work crews could cut grass and pick up trash. Local cleanup efforts would build community pride and cohesion.

Even so, far broader and more comprehensive efforts are needed. For starters, the city cannot set priorities or establish a blight-reduction plan without better information.

Estimates for the number of vacant houses in Toledo are inexcusably inexact, ranging from 2,000 to 9,000, according to The Blade. To best use scarce resources, the city must know the approximate number of vacant structures, where they’re located, and what condition they’re in. It also needs an updated land-use plan to help determine which parcels should be used for residential, recreational, or commercial use.

Working with community groups and the U.S. Postal Service, the city should be able to get a reasonably accurate count and map of vacant properties soon.

Since August, 2012, nearly 840 structures have been torn down at a cost of $6.8 million. The pace of demolition needs to accelerate to about 1,000 homes a year. To do so, the new Lucas County Land Bank should tap federal neighborhood stabilization money and other grants. Toledo should also explore what other cities are doing. In Detroit, Motor City Blight Busters runs one of the nation’s most-effective private efforts to raze and rebuild properties.

Structures listed in a dangerous building inventory should take priority for demolition. Beyond that, to preserve the city’s tax base, shoring up working-class neighborhoods or the parts of poorer neighborhoods that are still stable and dense should get immediate attention.

Cooperative effort

In identifying parcels for demolition, repair, commercial development, or green space, the city should work closely with groups that are already on the front lines of fighting blight.

Finally, city government needs to start planning for a smaller city. In 1970, Toledo had 383,000 people, compared to roughly 280,000 today. The central city will never reach its population peak again and could stabilize at 250,000 to 300,000 people.

That’s not a bad thing. Bigger is not necessarily better. Vacant land poses an obvious problem for any shrinking city, but it also provides opportunities to consolidate neighborhoods and reshape the metropolis with parks, green space, and urban gardens, as well as assemble parcels for commercial development.

Toledo must engage local artists in these efforts. In other cities, public art has pulled investment into some of the most blighted blocks. Art is not just for museums — it’s a way to redevelop and redefine a city by changing its visual landscape. With city government support, for example, Philadelphia has become the mural capital of the world, attracting tourists from around the globe.

Efforts to reduce blight and redevelop Toledo should, whenever possible, involve the entire region. Toledo’s suburbs have a real stake in what happens to Toledo.

Modern economies are regional, cutting across municipal and even state lines. Suburbs share a common destiny with the central city, which dictates the image of the region and controls most of the transportation networks, educational and cultural institutions, and entertainment venues. Regions with healthier central cities, such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Portland, outperform those without them. Core cities such as Toledo attract the young, skilled workers who drive the new knowledge-based economy.

Like many larger cities, Toledo has had some success redeveloping its downtown, but it has failed to improve residential neighborhoods. The photos appearing in The Blade over the last three days show there’s cause for concern — but not panic.

Toledo’s future will be dictated by the decisions city’s leaders make now. On even the most blighted block, residents must be able to imagine a city of hope.

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