Saturday, January 24, 2015


The following was originally published in the Cleveland Restoration Society's Fa├žade, Issue 94, Winter 2014.
Between January 2010 and June 2013 over 3100 homes and over 200 commercial buildings were torn down in the City of Cleveland. An additional 8,000 city homes identified by inspectors as vacant and distressed will cost approximately $80 million to demolish.  In October 2014 the Cuyahoga County Council approved a $50 million bond issue for additional demolition.

Supported by a James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation Mid-Career Grant, I explored the impact of demolition efforts on Cleveland’s neighborhoods. With assistance from project intern Eugene Basile I used mapped GIS data from NEO CANDO and the City of Cleveland to analyze implementation of existing plans related to rehabs and demolitions and to explore patterns of demolition, rehabs, and density change from January 2010 to June 2013.  I used maps of land use and building form to rapidly identify remaining intact clusters of historic commercial fabric and surrounding neighborhoods.

Building stock is being lost at significant rates in some neighborhoods. Overall, Cleveland lost 2.7% of its 1-3 family housing stock and 1.6% of commercial buildings from January 2010-June 2013. Twelve neighborhoods lost more than 5% of their 1-3 family housing stock during this time, and two of those neighborhoods, Fairfax and Kinsman, lost more than 10%. Within Landmark Districts, less building stock is being lost, but the protective value of the Landmark designation is limited. Eighty-five percent of demolition proposals that went before the Landmarks Commission, and 93% of demolition proposals that went through a local Design Review Committee and then to the Planning Commission, were approved in 2010-2013.

 Whether it is feasible to renovate a property as an alternative to tearing it down depends on the gap between rehab cost and the resulting sales price. Increasing appraised property values will allow the gap between sales price and rehab cost to narrow even for extensive rehabs. The subsidy needed to make up the rehab gap can be compared with the funds needed for demolition.

Increasing property values are a goal of using public funds for both rehab and demolition. In a 2013 study commissioned by the Thriving Communities Institute,[i] in higher priced markets the benefit of demolition on property values was significant, but in weaker markets, which included most of the City of Cleveland, demolition resulted in property value benefits that are less than the cost of demolition. Subsidies for rehab several times greater than the cost of demolition may be justified if rehab is shown to have an equivalent higher impact on property values compared to demolition. More research is needed to quantify this impact. The majority of the community development respondents I surveyed would choose to invest $100,000 of subsidy in one rehab, assuming that it would result in a successful sale, rather than using the $100,000 to tear down ten houses.

I wanted to determine if demolitions were occurring at a rate high enough to significantly affect the density of Cleveland’s neighborhoods. Density is a city’s basic competitive advantage over the suburbs. Dense areas supply enough people to create a sense of energy and liveliness, and they support transit and walkable retail areas close to where people live.  Less car use means less need for parking and more ability to create a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment.  Historic neighborhoods were often built at high urban densities that contribute to an area’s character and sense of place.
The Enterprise Green Communities Standard identifies 10 units/acre as the threshold for urban density, a threshold that 24 of 34 Cleveland neighborhoods currently meet[ii]. Some neighborhoods in Cleveland are transitioning from urban densities to more suburban densities, including Fairfax and North Broadway. Woodland Hills, St. Clair Superior, Stockyards, South Collinwood, North Broadway, Mt. Pleasant, Glenville, Forest Hills, Fairfax, and Clark Fulton all lost 0.4 net units per acre or more from 2010-2013– more than twice the city average.

If a shrinking city cannot sustain high densities everywhere, identifying concentrated areas of density surrounded by lower densities and greenspace is a relevant strategy.  I proposed focusing residential density around historic commercial clusters.

While many isolated buildings are architecturally significant or have storied pasts, they have relatively little competitive advantage to contribute to neighborhood revitalization, compared to historic buildings that are grouped together.  When they are concentrated next to each other they create a sense of place that gives identity to a neighborhood. The effect of an outdoor room is created by buildings that are built up to the sidewalk and enclose the space. With enough storefronts, a sense of vibrancy and community is created that helps support retail businesses. 

Woodhill and Stoughton Historic Commercial Cluster, Aerial View (Credit: Google Maps)

Woodhill and Stoughton Historic Commercial Cluster, Street View (Credit: Google Street View)

A series of historic commercial clusters (HCCs) creates a strong historic district that might be anchored by a theatre or a market, but HCCs can be smaller and still have the critical mass necessary to support urban life. In terms of retail capacity an HCC can be thought of as the size of a neighborhood convenience strip center of 4000 – 20,000 sq ft, unanchored by a grocery store or drug store chain.

I used land use and building footprint maps in concert with Google Street View to identify HCCs within the city of Cleveland. In a departure from traditional historic preservation planning, I focused only on historic building form, and not on architectural significance, condition or historic legacy. Pre-1940 buildings in any state of disrepair, alteration, or use could be renovated and contribute to the sense of place in an HCC. To identify the clusters I looked for commercial buildings with storefronts adjacent to the sidewalk, with 5 storefronts on three corners of an intersection, or with 10 contiguous storefronts on both sides of the street (with a few caveats and variations). The clusters were then verified with an on-the-ground check. Many of the HCCs outside of designated landmark and design review areas are deteriorated and in danger of being lost, with several disappearing between 2011 (when the Google Street View image was taken) and 2014.
Historic Commercial Clusters with 5 minute walk radius, west side Cleveland
(click to enlarge)
Historic Commercial Clusters with 5 minute walk radius, southeast Cleveland
(click to enlarge)
Historic Commercial Clusters with 5 minute walk radius, northeast Cleveland
(click to enlarge)

The idea of focusing rehabs and density in neighborhoods around HCCs received mostly positive feedback from representatives of community development corporations.  The HCCs could each form the heart of a higher density, walkable, historic cluster neighborhood in an area within 1/4 mile radius of the HCC. The walkability of the higher density neighborhoods would support the commercial cluster by providing foot traffic for businesses while the historic retail development would support the sense of place and urban feel of the surrounding neighborhood.

 In the HCC neighborhoods public funds could be directed primarily toward preservation and rehabilitation for both commercial and residential properties. Within these areas code enforcement and design review could be used together with higher subsidies directed toward renovation to strategically raise property values. Outside of HCCs, greenspace improvements could be prioritized and individual significant historic buildings proactively identified.

[i] Griswold, Nigel G. et al. Estimating the Effect of Demolishing Distressed Structures in Cleveland 2009 to 2013: Impacts on Real Estate Equity and Mortgage-foreclosure,, Western Land Conservancy Thriving Communities Institute, February 2013. Http://
[ii] Enterprise Community Partners. 2011 Green Communities Criteria, page 28, 2011.