As one drives through the cities throughout the Midwest today, you will likely find an abundance of vacant industrial and commercial buildings, neighborhoods full of overgrown empty lots and boarded up houses, and once thriving retail areas falling into disrepair. Here lies a tremendous development opportunity, the possibility to breathe new life back into neighborhoods and places that have seen better days. Old commercial buildings can become entrepreneurial incubators, microbreweries, artist studios, greenhouses, or trendy office spaces as Tom alluded to in his blog post last week. Older neighborhoods can be redeveloped with a mix of multi and single family housing, gardens, urban farms, and neighborhood parks.

To date, Holladay has worked at putting together some very creative reuses for older, existing commercial buildings as shown in the redevelopment project of the Sawtooth building in Nashville, TN and the renovation at 3300 Sample in South Bend, IN.  Ground-up development at infill locations such as Darby Row, AM General, and AmeriPlex at Elm Hill also show the re-purposing of previously empty lots. These projects show a sincere passion for helping to rebuild the cities and places where we live and work.

However, it can’t be expected that every old building or boarded up house can, or should, be repurposed into a new business or home.  While I think it is great to champion the idea of redevelopment and reuse of existing properties, we should also consider the contraction of a city’s commercial and residential inventory. Most Midwestern cities have had a decrease in city population for decades as a result of suburban sprawl and a decline in the manufacturing base.  The result is a multitude of empty buildings and homes.  Taking residential and commercial space out of a city’s inventory should be done carefully and under a plan that helps to strengthen the remaining inventory. The contraction of a city, if done in a smart, effective way, can assist in helping to revitalize the spark that these Midwestern cities once had.

Cities throughout the Midwest and US continue to be a draw for the younger demographic of today. That said, the population totals of this younger demographic cannot fully reverse the lost population resulting from decades of suburban migration. Future neighborhood redevelopment efforts shouldn’t look to re-establish the density of housing that once was when the neighborhood was first developed; the redevelopment should be seen as an opportunity to help create a stronger neighborhood with fewer lots which are larger in size along with more green space and other outdoor amenities.

For example, the redevelopment of a neighborhood called Fall Creek Place in Indianapolis is considered a great success by land use experts throughout the country, and for the most part it is. It was once the city’s highest crime area referred to as ‘Dodge City’ because of its high crime rate.  Today it is a thriving urban neighborhood with over 300 new houses and some emerging retail commercial centers. However, the redevelopment effort could have better positioned the neighborhood for better long-term success had they adapted the plan to take into account the demographic changes and nuances of a new Midwest city. The redevelopment plan was to re-create almost the same density that was there prior to it turning into blight. There was some new neighborhood parkland established, but not much, and the lot sizes were pretty much left intact, reflecting the City’s parcel maps going back in history. Today, Phase I of the residential redevelopment efforts is complete with Phase II limping along at a much slower pace. I believe had they contracted some of the planned residential inventory, both Phase I and Phase II would likely be complete and the neighborhood better positioned for long-term success. To learn more about Fall Creek Place, click here.

There is no easy answer on how areas of blight can be reborn in a way that ensures their long-term success.  However, redevelopment, reuse, and contraction are just a few of the angles that should be considered so cities are better equipped to adapt and succeed in the decades to come.

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