Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Smaller, Greener Flint

Genesee County Land Bank Chairman Dan Kildee. (Photo courtesy of Jon M. Brouwer/Grand Rapids Press)

When temporary Mayor Michael Brown told a Rotary Club luncheon last month that one solution to Flint's woes might be "shutting down quadrants of the city," it sounded more like wishful thinking than actual policy. In fact, a Brown spokesman claimed it was just an off-the-cuff remark.

But a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times indicates that the concept is gaining momentum. It's even got an environmentally pleasing name; it's a "greening strategy."

As you might have guessed, Genesee County Land Bank Chairman Dan Kildee, who also happens to be the county treasurer, is leading the charge.

“Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” Kildee told David Streitfeld of The New York Times. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”

(Streitfeld's article builds on a good piece by The Flint Journal's Ron Fonger published a month earlier.)

One thing the Times story inexplicably failed to mention is that Youngstown, Ohio has already put a similar plan into action that would be an obvious model for Flint. I mentioned this in an earlier post about shrinking Flint, and Fonger zeroed in on it in his Journal article:
The Land Bank chairman said he's prepared to promote talk about shrinking Flint by helping to bring in an expert on the subject, like Youngstown, Ohio, Mayor Jay Williams.

In Youngstown, the city is demolishing homes but also monitoring neighborhoods that have largely been abandoned, and is offering up to $50,000 in grants for remaining homeowners to relocate, according to news reports.

Flint is in the process of updating its master plan for the first time since 1965, so now would be the time to map out a "greening strategy" and make it official city policy.

For a racially diverse — some would argue racially polarized — city like Flint, it’s bound to be a controversial process. Namely, which parts of Flint get eliminated? And what happens when the predominantly white power structure selects predominantly African American sections of town to turn into verdant pastures? I don’t think I’m going out on limb in predicting that the north end will go before Mott Park or East Court.

And do you offer out-of-state speculators who own abandoned property the same payment as an actual Flint resident living in a house slated for removal? There's no question this whole process would be very complicated.

Are you wondering what this might resemble if it’s handled badly? Look at the mess Flint has made trying to close schools in its shrinking, cash-poor educational system. Shrinking the entire city could make that fiasco seem like a model of cooperation and efficiency.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is a good idea. Flint has become a poverty-stricken town trapped in the boundaries of a once-prosperous city. Providing services for 34-square miles just doesn't make sense. But it will take leadership in the mayor's office to pull this off, something that's been in short supply for a long time in Flint. (Given his temporary status, I'm not including Mike Brown in this negative assessment. His short stint as mayor has reminded us what a competent, rational leader looks like after the Don Williamson years.)

At least Kildee seems to know what he's up against:

"I am pretty well sold on this, but the challenge is to do this openly, with participation of the citizens," Kildee told the Journal. "Really, the question is whether the city is going to let this happen in the most destructive manner or the most constructive."

UPDATE: Kildee appears to be on the porch of a house on Sanford Place, a dead-end street off W. Third Ave. in Carriage Town. It's not on Google Street View, but here's a shot of the street from Third Ave.

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  1. Any idea where that photograph of Dan Kildee was taken?

  2. I'm not sure. The Grand Rapids paper just said an abandoned home in Flint, which doesn't really narrow it down.

    I was struck by the street itself. It looks like it has reverted to a dirt road, yet the house across the street looks like it could be occupied.

  3. making this work really seems to hinge on who becomes mayor. if we get another goofball, it's hard to imagine this process going well.

  4. I don't know. I'm on the fence about this campaign. Isn't bulldozing things just par for the course when it comes to Flint urban development planning? How is this going to better Flint in any way?

    Some of those houses are beautiful, and much better built than anything nowadays. Perhaps the city should offer existing dwellers to move their house at no cost.

    Maybe I'm not understanding the scope of abandoned/decaying housing that is out there. What will take the place of all these houses? If it's a park... meh... if it's a farm?... I'd want the soil tested weekly.

    It seems the better idea would be to offer up some bulldozed parcels to a developer who will build new developments. Is that what they intend to do? At least that might prevent another country farm from turning into a beige housing development.

    Where was it I was reading, some county/state has only allowed people to build new housing IN the city, not in the suburbs, in order to preserve natural habitat. Ultimately, the city is building up... but I don't recall where I read that. Must be in Europe somewhere... or maybe Japan.

    I just feel like it's such a waste. If you view Civic Park neighborhood from Google, it looks like a perfectly designed neighborhood.

    Why not take the money they would use to tear it down and haul it off, and give it to a community habitat for humanity that can assist in fixing it up?

    Is Flint's problem the housing or the people in that housing? Because I'm getting the feeling that some think it's the people who aren't taking care of their own housing. And if that's the case, bulldozing it, isn't going to fix the problem, it's just going to move it. Better to put the money toward programs that will work with the community to better their own housing.

    Spoken from someone who hasn't a clue as to the current state of affairs... but am wondering if anyone really understands the current state anyways.

  5. I know what you mean. It's painful to think of all the potentially great houses that might disappear.

    Part of this is just pure numbers. In 1965, the last time Flint revised the master plan, it had about 200,000 people. Projections show it won't be long before Flint has less than 100,000 people.

    There's simply an over-abundance of housing in a city that's geographically too large to service, especially when 1/3 of the population lives in poverty so tax revenues are very low.

    The problem with taking out the worst abandoned houses randomly throughout the city is that you end up servicing "neigbhorhoods" with only a few houses left. It makes more sense to systematically downsize, if that's the word. Then you can concentrate resources on the remaining neighborhoods and rehab the remaining houses.

    And just looking at the map, I'm guessing Civic Park is too close to the core of the city to be included.

    I think you have to do this to save neighborhoods like Civic Park. Deciding which neighborhoods go will be the tough part.

  6. Maybe this is why Powers is so desperate to move. The school would soon be surrounded by empty fields.

  7. so if the vacated land evolves into a park or farm the soil would have to be tested on a weekly basis, but if the property is used for a new housing development then the soil would not require weekly testing ???? hmmmmmm

    street after street of abandoned homes of which some may be better built than current models....but the rehabilitation costs would be enormous. the older homes had knob and tube wiring....the plumbing has been stripped i'm sure, then there is the challenge of 60-80 yr old basements.

    it's sad to think of but....when the population shrinks as it has do we really need hundreds of abandoned homes acting as hosts to rats and other animals, crack dens, and urban blight?

    just as the population of the flint schools has diminished it seems ridiculous to operate too many schools because we have always done that.

    this is the opposite of growth...when the population was continually growing we needed more homes and more we are on the other side, diminishing we need less schools and less homes.

    i would much rather see empty lots than decaying abandoned homes and businesses.

    if you have a block of say ten homes and 9 of them are abandoned then buy out the one remaining person and help them to relocate to a better area. as someone mentioned it would be a process to determine if the home is actually owned by someone who has lived there for a number of years or an out of town speculator. the tough part is encouraging someone to leave their home....but the color of cash can often times make the difference.

    another aspect is the public safety of such areas...with the removal of abandoned homes disease, crime, and the overall public safety becomes better. the worst that could happen would be a grass fire as opposed to a structure fire.

    these are challenging issues for challenging times....i just hope the newly elected mayor is up for the challenge

  8. The problem I have with this plan has been stated before: how would the city decide which areas to shut down? This sixties idea of urban renewal (which is all this really is) was tried once before in Flint, completely eliminating the Saint John Street neighborhood for an industrial park and Buick. The 'bad' (read black) populace was kicked out of their homes and had to move elsewhere, and the cycle continued when the neighborhood around Doyle Ryder disappeared.

    A resident of Avenue A (which only has a smattering of homes left) was interviewed for The Journal and said that he loved his area. He had a big yard (he took over abandoned side lots) and no neighbors to bug him, but still got city services. He also takes care of his home. Why displace someone who has taken care of their home for twenty-plus years only because everything else around them has gone to hell?

    Take a drive (or a Google Street View) down some of the streets that would most likely get shut down: Alma, Bonbright, Ruth, Holbrook and the like all have swaths of abandoned homes, but in the middle of all that you have very well kept homes, and to be frank, it wouldn't be fair to 'convince' people to leave them.

    Going back to the Saint John Street analogy, people were originally given the option of being paid to move. When they refused, the city waited a few years and then just shut off services to them, even though they were still occupied. Some people stayed until the (de)construction equipment arrived to tear down their memories.

    And though they get a bad rap, what about renters? I'm sure many landlords would dump their properties for $50,000 and put their tenants on the street, leaving them to fend for themselves. I'm not sold on this at all, as I'm sure (like was mentioned earlier) the more black north end is more likely to get shut down before some of the bad neighborhoods on the south side.

  9. Perhaps some university professor can get all their urban planning students to come up with ideas... it would interesting to see how they would carve it up so to speak...

    Ultimately, I think it would be nice if they created park pockets that could be maintained by the community. That wouldn't shrink the city limit, but it sounds nice in theory. They certainly do it in NYC to claim park space, but you can't compare that I know.

    As for the soil testing... for some reason I feel that if they built on top, they would just add a layer of topsoil to cover any issues, but if they grow a garden, anything there would absorb what was underneath that topsoil, so I guess that was my theory behind that...

  10. VVürstsydæ VVårlørdæApril 23, 2009 at 7:03 PM

    Is it Cross Ct.? Could be Van Lue Ct. or Sylvan Ct.? Millet St. Lots of weird little lanes south of downtown and along W. Court St. Some of these streets like Rice Ct. were never paved.

    I dunno. Urban decay just kind of looks the same after a while. Overkill. I just don't see the "beauty" in it anymore. To paraphrase Ted Bundy, blight porn just won't do it for me anymore. I need something harder. More extreme. Only pictures of Nagasaki, Dresden, and Banda Aceh will suffice.

    When it comes to vacating sections of the city, proximity to the core is not a factor. Look at all of the vacant property along 3rd Ave. (y'know, University Ave. in Carriage Town). Wouldn't be surprised if some of these areas are the first to go. Clear the property, let it revert to nature a while, and maybe later the colleges of Hurley will use it.

    Rest assured black neighborhoods will be hit hard. Areas west of Devil's Lake, North Ave., Industrial Ave., Ruth Ave., Austin Ave. Ave. A, Mary St., and the like. Probably a few streets on the Eastside and along S. Saginaw as well. The whole process will be done piecemeal, half-assed, and sslllllooowwwwlllyyyyy. This is Flint after all. In ten years for every neighborhood that is cleared there'll be 5 more ready for the wrecking ball.

  11. Würstside WarlørdApril 24, 2009 at 2:49 PM

    Not quite sure this is how "buy low, sell high" is supposed to work.

    Awww, screw it. I'm gonna buy all of Cross Ct. and quadruple my investment as soon as Dan and the Land Bank boys get to it.

  12. I was thinking the same thing. Get some insider info — or just make an educated guess — on which hoods go first, and buy up all the junk properties you can afford, then wait for the city to take them off your hands.

    This may end up being the only way all the doofus out-of-state speculators will ever make any money off flint.

  13. Würstside WarlørdApril 24, 2009 at 3:50 PM

    Random Thoughts:

    Mr. J.L. is 100% right. Urban renewal all over again. Well said. Dig it.

    Grumkin is correct too. Test the soil daily just to confirm the insane amounts of lead, arsenic, and radioactive cadmium. Dunno what the half life is on this stuff, but vast swathes of Flint will probably be ripe for redevelopment by the year 2525.

    Slick is right on as well. People still gotta live in Flint. Preservation is groovy from afar, but weighing the merits of saving architectually appealing property vs. the struggles of the poor sap thats gotta live next to a crumbling, semi-abandoned den of crack hookers...well, ya gotta side with demolition.

    Civic Park will probably be the first to go. Whether it is close or far from the CBD (ha!) is meaningless. It would make sense to preserve it, so...

    The name "Sable Pelt" is a bit disturbing.

    Dan Kildee is a kick azz drummer. The beard is a nice touch. He has taken on a job most others would rather not deal with. Still, I'll bet the Land Bank'll be giving away property to the colleges, Hurley, and developers (or land rapists if you prefer) who'll throw together something awful in place of the vacant land. Then we'll be expected to thank Dan and the developers because the crap that'll get built is marginally better than the rat-infested death traps that were there before.

  14. I don't think there will be any money to be had here GY & WW. My guess is that they'll pull eminant domain. I agree with J.L. I really feel for someone who would have to move from a home they love. Even if the neighborhood has become crappy, some people still see things through rose coloured glasses.

  15. Hello-

    I believe the phot of Mr Kildee was taken on Sanford Place, a small cul-de-sac off Third Avenue in Carriage Town.


    -Charles W Nash House

  16. Regarding how the process would work, my understanding of Dan Kildee's concept doesn't include any cash payments. Instead it would entail grant-funded refurbishment of Land Bank owned houses on "winner" streets, then offering those houses on an even-swap-no-cash-free-moving basis to occupied-home owners that are current on their taxes (including landlords, I think) on "loser" streets. I assume that the city then would use legal processes to "vacate" loser streets, then tear out their pavement and shut off the water mains.

    Thus there would be minimal gain for speculators and minimal incentive to buy abandoned houses.

    My perception is that an objective way of ranking blocks and neighborhoods would be used, i.e. maybe the percentage of occupied and code-compliant houses.

    Also note that the most labor intensive city services (police, fire, trash) are delivered not by the neighborhood, but by the street. Significant savings could be achieved without touching the incendiary issue of whole-neighborhood "loser" status, by selecting individual streets to deactivate. If the city had 50% fewer miles of streets, roughly 50% the old-days number of patrol cops and trash teams could provide the same patrol/pickup frequency the city used to get. Street paving and buried-infrastructure maintenance is by mileage, too.

    Yes, it's true that a physically smaller city would result in *more* cost could have fewer fire stations, which require proximity to the areas they serve. Other infrastructure costs would be reduced. More schools would be within walking distance of more of their students' homes.

    Politics is the art of the achievable, though. If what's achievable is deactivating 2 out of 3 or 4 out of 5 streets, it would make sense to go for those savings rather than holding out for perfection.

  17. A further thought about 'shrinking' Flint: there might be substantial governmental consequences to a diminuition of Flint's boundaries. The townships surrounding Flint have fixed boundaries as well. In the absence of coordinated township action... for which I'm unaware of any indication of interest... a "shrunk" Flint would create areas in a sort of governmental limbo, part of neither the city nor a township but nonetheless proximate to the city. Usually cities try to avoid being adjacent to ungoverned areas, so as to avoid the possibility that some sharpie will operate a public nuisance just over the boundary.

  18. I didn't think that the city was going to 'give up' the land per se. From what I understand, the talk is to just make it a vast grassland, farmland without crops. Then again, it could just be a fenced in wasteland like GM left all over the city.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at