What to do with vacant lots, the unwanted offspring of urban sprawl

Updated: 2013-10-13T00:49:32Z


The Kansas City Star

At least 4,000 but possibly 5,000 vacant lots are junking up Kansas City.

That’s hundreds of acres of property, enough for a small town or a giant park, but don’t get too carried away with that idea.

These parcels are scattered, although the vast majority of them are, not surprisingly, located in the 3rd District, one of the most underdeveloped, struggling portions of the city.

Thank you, sprawl. Vacant lots are your unwanted offspring.

What to do? The problem of vacant lots didn’t just start, and it’s not isolated to Kansas City. But a new Kansas City task force is pondering all those underutilized sites, which could be generating tax revenue.

First, don’t reach for what has become the go-to “solution” — the urban community garden. Not every vacant lot is suited to become a feeding field for lovers of heirloom tomatoes. In many neighborhoods, it’s mostly elderly people.

That was among the very pointed points made by Barbara Johnson, a 50-year resident of her home at 33rd and South Benton.

“We didn’t leave the community,” she said at the second task force meeting this week. “The community died.”

By that, she means that the most stable homeowners on many blocks blighted by vacant lots are the senior citizens. She said her block includes her home, her daughter’s house and vacant houses. Not exactly a plethora of able hands to plant, weed and water.

“The blight didn’t just happen because of us. It was policy.”

She’s right.

Vacant lots, the majority of which tend to be in urban cores, are symptomatic of broader social conditions. The unchecked sprawl of development, dysfunctional school systems, racial attitudes, crime and a lack of a strategic demolition policy for older homes and buildings all play roles.

The city spends about $1 million annually mowing lots.

The Land Bank owns 2,731 of them, and 700 more will be added to that tally by next spring. It’s estimated that another 600 to 1,000 might be privately owned or have been abandoned by absentee landlords.

Jacob A. Wagner, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor and urban planner, told the task force that overcoming “the mentality of land abundance” is a major issue in the region, partly because of the lack of natural boundaries to growth.

“We have the idea that we can just abandon areas and move on,” Wagner said.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to

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