Gray v. Green Infrastructure

April 10th, 2014

By Raquel Jones, GOPC Intern

As the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) sets out on a $3 billion tunnel project, questions have been raised as to whether enough focus is being spent on a possibly cheaper and greener alternative to tunnels. Rates continue to increase to cover the cost of these expansive projects, but some ratepayers are not convinced that this is the best solution to their water and sewage issues. Some argue that green infrastructure (such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and bio-infiltration installations) can often provide more sustainable benefits at a lesser cost than single-purpose gray infrastructure. Furthermore, building green infrastructure could possibly improve the overall aesthetic quality of some of Cleveland’s most blighted neighborhoods, by turning vacant lots into lush rain gardens and building more parks. These sort of green projects support property values by beautifying the surrounding areas, while also stimulating the economy by providing landscaping and maintenance jobs.

Although the NEORSD had originally agreed to include green infrastructure in their water and sewer system, they are now planning to spend 97.5% of project funds on seven large tunnels. Some arguments in favor of this decision include the fact that many green projects come with high barriers, such as the EPA requirement that the sewer district have full control over the land in perpetuity, so that it can be properly maintained. Sewer district Executive Director Julius Ciacca and his team have also argued that much of the green infrastructure technology is still unproven in large-scale applications and would be much more time-consuming, which could prove to be a risky move when aiming to meet a series of strict federally mandated benchmarks. This is due in part to the case that green infrastructure is often capable of capturing only the first inch of rainfall and diverting it from the sewer, so that in heavier rains, water retention features become overwhelmed, and the overflow defaults to the combined sewer system.

Although green infrastructure may be difficult to implement in the short term, the lasting effects of going green are undeniable. More and more cities are continuing to pursue green alternatives, such as Philadelphia’s recent projects, as green infrastructure continues to prove to be both sustainable and inexpensive in comparison to gray infrastructure. In many ways, it also adds property value to localities, as it works to beautify deteriorating and impoverished communities. Due to its many benefits, when used in the right locations, green infrastructure can add great value to both the existing water and sewer infrastructure and to surrounding neighborhoods.

Meeting the Infrastructure Challenge in Legacy Cities

March 31st, 2014

By Jacob Wolf, Research Associate

Combined sewer overflows (CSO) stink—both environmentally and economically—for Ohio’s cities. In many urban areas built up in the 19th and early 20th centuries, stormwater runoff drains into the same pipes that carry raw sewage to treatment facilities. Most days, all of the combined sewer and storm water makes it safely to the treatment plants. However, when there is heavy rainfall, the systems overload, and the excess untreated water gets diverted into rivers and lakes. This is referred to as a CSO event. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and other cities around Ohio and the rest of the country are under mandates from the United States E.P.A. to reduce or eliminate the amount of CSO discharged into their waterways.

The strategies the affected cities are developing to reduce their CSO can be broadly categorized as either “gray infrastructure” or “green infrastructure.” “Gray” refers to building new pipes and tunnels underground to hold the excess water. “Green” involves using plants, gardens, and open space on the surface to reduce the amount of storm water runoff that gets into the pipes in the first place. The Plain Dealer recently ran a series of articles that analyzed the pros and cons of both approaches, focusing on the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD)’s $3 billion project to build new underground tunnels.

Green infrastructure has many benefits for urban revitalization. It commonly appears as street-side landscaping features or open, undeveloped space. It can also mean “daylighting” previously covered streams and waterways. Some green infrastructure projects transform vacant or abandoned property into “rain gardens.” All these forms of green infrastructure have great aesthetic benefits that improve the quality of urban places as they capture storm water and keep it out of the sewers.

The City of Philadelphia is leading the charge for green solutions to the CSO problem. Philadelphia’s 25-year, $2.4 billion CSO reduction plan will spend roughly 70% of the program’s budget on 8,000 to 12,000 acres of green projects. Officials estimate that this will eliminate about 8 billion gallons of sewage overflow per year. By contrast, the NEORSD tunnel project devotes only 2.5% of its $3 billion budget to green infrastructure.

However, NEORSD leaders and other critics argue that green methods alone will not prevent enough overflow events. Even if Philadelphia’s plan succeeds, it will still produce more gallons of overflow than Northeast Ohio does now. Furthermore, Philadelphia is not under an EPA consent decree, so it does not have the same stringent benchmarks to meet that NEORSD and other Ohio districts have.

Reducing and eliminating CSO discharge is key for economic development in legacy cities. Cleaner waterways create more desirable places that people want to live, work, and play. As it performs its utilitarian function of mitigating stormwater runoff, green infrastructure beautifies neighborhoods and creates vibrant, new public spaces. It can increase property values and provide a tool for disposing of vacant and abandoned residential property. Even if green infrastructure isn’t the only solution for CSOs, it should be at least be part of the solution due to the additional benefits it provides.

What I’ve Learned at GOPC – A Fond Farewell by Researcher Jacob Wolf

March 28th, 2014

By Jacob Wolf, Research Associate

On my last day at Greater Ohio, I’m taking a little time to thank the entire GOPC staff for what has been a valuable learning experience. I started my internship in September with a law license and a general idea of what “smart growth” was. I’ve since learned much more about the policy nuts and bolts of vacant and abandoned properties, transit planning, and green infrastructure—among many other issues. I’ve also learned about the process of advocacy and policy making and met decision-makers from around Ohio.

The experience and knowledge I gained at Greater Ohio helped me land a highly-sought position in the City of Columbus’s Land Redevelopment Office. I am excited to combine my law and planning backgrounds with my passion for urban revitalization to work in this new role. Thank you to Lavea, Alison, Christina, Marianne, Meg, and the rest of the Greater Ohio team for everything. I hope the next aspiring planner to serve in my role enjoys the same positive experience I’ve had. I’ll take the lessons I’ve learned here with me through my career.

GOPC Releases Groundbreaking Neighborhood Assessment

March 24th, 2014

Report finds Columbus Neighborhood Weinland Park on path to long-term vibrancy

Greater Ohio Policy Center, in partnership with The Columbus Foundation, has released “Achieving Healthy Neighborhoods: Evaluating the Impact of Housing Investments in Weinland Park,” a data-driven report that assesses whether the Columbus neighborhood of Weinland Park has reached long-term stability.

Achieving Healthy Neighborhoods finds that, as a result of $80 million in housing investments since 2003, Weinland Park is improving. However, the neighborhood has not yet reached a sustainable level of health and coordinated programs and investments should persist in order to ensure the neighborhood does not regress and continues on a trajectory of long-term vibrancy. Additionally, the report finds that Weinland Park does not exhibit signs of gentrification–such as rapidly increasing home values, repeat sales of homes, increasing income levels, and rapidly shifting demographics.

Although Columbus is often considered more economically prosperous than its Midwestern peers, many of its older areas have faced significant challenges common to legacy cities.  Like other neighborhoods, Weinland Park has experienced decades-long declining employment opportunities, population loss, and the associated increases in poverty and vacancy.  Until recently, Weinland Park was perceived to be one of the most distressed neighborhoods in Columbus.

In 2003, a catalytic turning point occurred when 15% of the neighborhood’s housing transferred from poor management to strong management, transforming it over time from housing of last resort to housing of choice. OSU took an active role in supporting revitalization efforts and the City of Columbus strategically chose to prioritize their investments in a targeted way. Philanthropic, government, and nonprofit partners formed the Weinland Park Collaborative to coordinate programs and investments across many areas of neighborhood health, one of which is housing.

The story of Weinland Park is a remarkable one that continues to inspire many community developers, urban pioneers, and citizen leaders. Numerous stakeholders have rallied around a common vision, the community is actively engaged in its transformation, and philanthropic and government partners coordinate regularly with one another and with residents. While investments in Weinland Park are just beginning to show quantitative impact, Achieving Healthy Neighborhoods indicates that the neighborhood is transitioning into vibrancy.

Click here to download the report.

The Need for Targeted Demolition

February 24th, 2014

Written by Jacob Wolf, GOPC Researcher

Two recent news articles discuss Ohio legacy cities’ use of demolition programs when faced with large numbers of vacant and abandoned properties. However, the articles also point out that demolition alone is not a complete solution for these problems.

Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding,” which appeared in The New York Times on Nov. 12th, provides an overview of demolition activities in Cleveland, Youngstown, and various other legacy cities nationwide. With city populations declining to fractions of what they once were, some demolition becomes necessary. For example, the average vacant house in Cleveland costs $10,000 to demolish, but it would cost $27,000 per year to maintain in hopes of a future rehabilitation.

However, with resources for demolition limited, cities must prioritize and target their demolition activities to make the maximum impact. Case in point, a recent report by BCT Partners—a firm that works with HUD—recommended a better focus for Youngstown’s demolition. The report’s findings are explained in “Firm urges Youngstown to focus on healthier neighborhoods,” published in the Youngstown Vindicator on Nov. 25th. “If Youngstown is to survive as a residential location,” states the report, “it must shift focus from prioritizing those areas with severe blight to stabilizing healthier neighborhoods and retaining the existing population.”

Youngstown officials say the city had been prioritizing demolition in the most blighted neighborhoods, because those houses cost the least to demolish. They also said EPA regulations and the requirements of the Strong Cities Strong Communities (SC2) program, which funded the demolitions, necessitated this more “scattershot” approach. While Youngstown has demolished more than 2,600 structures since 2006, more than 4,000 remain in the city. The focus of Youngstown going forward should shift to prioritizing the “quality” of demolitions over the “quantity,” and other cities should follow this lead.

Revitalization of Ohio Streams

January 24th, 2014

The Lick Run project in Cincinnati. Image from www.building-cincinnati.com.

By Raquel Jones, Greater Ohio Policy Center Intern

While Cincinnati has recently gained media exposure for taking on the task of uncovering a stream that has been buried for almost a century, this is certainly not the first case of so-called daylighting in the state. Cities throughout Ohio–including Dayton and Mayfield, for example–have been pursuing more sustainable urban infrastructure by unearthing previously buried streams for the many benefits that this practice can provide.

The term daylighting specifically refers to projects that deliberately expose all or some of a previously covered stream. When uncovered, the waterway is either re-established in the old channel if possible, or threaded between structures now present on the land. Stream daylighting is a key technique for making urban infrastructure more sustainable since it reduces sewage back-up and overflows caused by heavy rains while avoiding the hefty costs of having to replace current underground piping. Uncovering streams in urban areas can also give people a chance to interact with nature while staying within the confines of the city. Private development may also be attracted to the natural scenery and decide to put up business within vicinity of the stream.

NPR recently ran a story on the Lick Run project in Cincinnati that aims to uncover a local stream, which will save the city the $200 million that it would have cost to replace the underground pipes to contain it. Mayfield in Cuyahoga County completed a similar project back in 2006 with the restoration of Foster’s Run, which had been one of the most severely eroded tributaries of the Chagrin River before this project daylighted and restored sections of the stream. In June of 2011, the City of Delaware began a daylighting project in which a 600-foot section of buried storm water drainage was transformed into an open-air stream channel to improve water quality and aquatic habitat, relieve flooding, and reduce runoff.

All of these projects are steps in the right direction toward revitalizing our urban areas in Ohio, something that we care deeply about here at GOPC.

GOPC’s 2013 Accomplishments

January 22nd, 2014

Throughout 2013, we championed revitalization and sustainable growth across Ohio. We are proud of all we have accomplished.

To fill you in on what’s been going on at GOPC’s office and throughout the state in the past year, we have taken stock of some of our major 2013 accomplishments:

2013 BY THE NUMBERS

5 groundbreaking reports published on the economic benefits of smart development

27 expert quotes in newspapers and other media sources in Ohio and beyond

30 presentations, including 2 overseas

300 participants at our Revitalizing Vacant Properties Conference

4,000 supporters and growing

 

To see the complete list of our 2013 Accomplishments, click here.

 

Transportation for America

December 13th, 2013

On December 4th, GOPC participated in an all-day event convened by Transportation for America, a program of Smart Growth America. The workshop brought together representatives from national organizations, state organizations—such as GOPC—and local organizations, which are interested in effecting state-level transportation reform.

Although about half of the states represented have strong multi-modal transportation systems and are focused on preserving and expanding these systems, GOPC was joined by other states that are still fighting to set up viable multi-modal systems.  Despite these differences, all attendees found the workshop extremely useful.  Among the highlights, GOPC and its peers learned of model legislative language that could help advance reform in their states and met other advocates who have helpful stories and lessons learned from their experiences.

GOPC looks forward to continuing this conversation and strengthening connections to peers across the country as we all work to expand and sustainably support transportation options.

Congratulations Cleveland Neighborhood Progress

September 29th, 2013

Congratulations to three essential organizations leading Cleveland’s neighborhood revitalization! We wish Neighborhood Progress, Inc, Cleveland Neighborhood Development Coalition and Live Cleveland the best as the newly formed Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.

More information about the merger can be found in this press release and video.

Will Mortgage Companies Get the Right to Redeem in the Tax Foreclosure Process?

September 26th, 2013

By Jacob Wolf, GOPC intern

The Ohio Supreme Court will hear the appeal of a case that could have a major impact on efforts to redevelop foreclosed properties in the state. Under Ohio law, a property owner whose property is in danger of foreclosure due to unpaid taxes may pay off those taxes and keep the property without it going up for auction at a sheriff’s sale. This is called the right of redemption. The issue in this case—with the unwieldy name of In the Matter of the Foreclosure of Liens for Delinquent Taxes v. Parcels of Land Encumbered with Delinquent Tax Liens et al.—is whether a mortgage company has the same right of redemption as a property owner.

Coshocton County started tax foreclosure proceedings on the property in question in April of 2011. Six months later, the property was sold at a sheriff’s sale.  Two weeks after the sale, the company that held the mortgage on the property—Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance—filed motions to vacate the sheriff’s sale and to redeem the property by paying the delinquent tax bill. The trial court accepted Vanderbilt’s redemption and voided the sale, but the county appealed. The 5th District Court of Appeals sided with the county, overturning Vanderbilt’s redemption.

In its appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, Vanderbilt argues that it was protecting its mortgage interest in the property. However, the appellate court found that Vanderbilt could have protected its interests in one of two ways:

  1. by advancing the tax money to the homeowners and allowing them to exercise their right of redemption before the sheriff’s sale, or
  2. by bidding on the property at the sheriff’s sale.

The land sold for more than $15,000 at the auction. Conversely, the homeowners owed only $825.84 in taxes; and Vanderbilt paid a total of $6,000 to the county in their attempt to redeem the property. It appears as though the Court of Appeals thought Vanderbilt was attempting to take ownership of the property without bidding at the sheriff’s sale.

If the Ohio Supreme Court rules in favor of Vanderbilt, it will allow banks and mortgage lenders to acquire foreclosed properties at deep discounts. Currently, these properties often wind up in city and county land banks, where they can be prepared for redevelopment. This court case, and its decision regarding property acquisition by private lenders, will influence the future of urban redevelopment and revitalization efforts in Ohio.