Friday, October 2, 2009

Is Smaller Better?

The small South Baltimore neighborhood of Wagner's Point before and after it was purchased by the city and razed. (Photos courtesy of Urbanite)

Genesee County Land Bank Chief Executive Dan Kildee has become the Pied Piper of the shrinking city movement. Michael Anft of Urbanite magazine considers if the approach would work in Baltimore and examines Flint in the process:
Desperate, a handful of cities have chosen to deal with the unpaid taxes and headaches that come with forgotten properties by getting rid of them. They’ve bulldozed thousands of homes, shrinking their “footprint” and saving the money it costs to provide roads, schools, sewers, water, and other services to neighborhoods with only a sprinkling of people left. By selling off valuable land in Flint, Genesee County has raised $6 million, using the money to raze a thousand homes and convert entire blocks into pocket parks and gardens.

Flint can count among its recent victories dozens of urban open spaces and some neighborhoods where home values are actually rising—a departure from a slow, torturous decline since the 1980s. Large-scale developments remain elusive, but Kildee says there’s more than a glint of hope. In north Flint, the Genesee County Land Bank bought abandoned properties, cleared them, and sold them to a developer. The result: twenty-four units of new, affordable housing. “These aren’t big numbers,” he says. “But seeing new construction in Flint and seeing the market respond—that’s quite an accomplishment.”
Go here for the entire story.


  1. This is, of course, a great idea. The problem is money, as ever. The only guy who might have the money to pay for something like this is Uncle Sam, and it's going to be hard to get the Republicans in Congress to sign off on billions of dollars to rehab a bunch of bombed-out rustbelt towns that don't vote for them. Hell, if the health care debacle is any indication half of the Democrats wouldn't either.

  2. I'm under the impression that Dan Kildee thinks he can make the condensation concept work for short bucks...maybe even self-funded.

    With a minimal staff all serving part-time as part of already-funded jobs, and the hourly workers who do the moving and light renovations coming from job training and other social-welfare-funded programs, and by taking advantage of opportunities to sell the more valuable business and industrial parcels, and by trading whatever salvage value there may be within demolished homes in exchange for some of the demolition-related costs, such a program can operate at relatively low cost per resident moved and old house demolished.

    I'm under the impression that Kildee regards the primary hurdle as local leadership, not funding. It's hard to find cities where the local "leaders" actually have the ability to convince the local citizenry of the desirability of such a program.

  3. I hope that's true. I suppose I'm simply assuming the worst. When I drive around the areas of Flint that, presumably, would be infilled (i.e. those areas less empty than others) I see a ton of vacant lots that will require new construction and old houses in really, really rough shape. I have grave doubts about how much of a project like this can be done in the manner you outline, unless it's done at a glacial pace. Which, of course, would be better than nothing.

    You're completely right about leadership. The population bearing the brunt of the move will be black and poor, and it's going to be really, really hard to get buy-in without a lot of help from community leaders. Otherwise it'll just be another one of Flint's protracted, poisonous race fights.

  4. It seems strange to me that those who care about Flint's poor "good folks"--including elements of the local clergy, who used to be able to influence significant percentages of likely Flint voters--aren't vociferously *insisting* that Kildee's proposal go forward.

    It seems dreadfully mean-spirited to me to allow (as an example) a poor, retired Flint homeowner, perhaps living on Social Security, to be stuck in an unsaleable home in need of unaffordable repairs, as an island in an otherwise-bombed-out, crime-ridden neighborhood with inadequate services. Doubly so when a socially similar neighborhood not too far away has abandoned but restorable houses, and combining the two neighborhoods would create one better, fully-populated one, at less cost to the City, with a better ability to support churches and service businesses.

    When was the last time that the local clergy was out-front on a Flint political issue, though?

  5. Genesee County Land Bank (GCLB) is holding three public forums to discuss "how to manage land that's been abandoned as populations have shrunk". The first one is tomorrow night, October 8. I'll be there.



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