July 28, 2014

Artists look to tackle neighborhood blight, one vacant lot at a time

A group of artists is looking to turn two of the 500 empty lots in Kansas City’s Ivanhoe neighborhood into community gathering places. The artists, in partnership with the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center, hope their initiative, called Lots of Love, will spread throughout the city. Thanks to a similar effort, a lot already has been transformed in the Marlborough neighborhood.

On a humid Saturday morning in late July, a dozen young artists were knee-deep into one of the Ivanhoe neighborhood’s 500 vacant lots.

While clearing out years’ worth of brush and trash, Sean Starowitz, the project’s front man, uncovered a brick path running the width of the lot.

“It’s like urban archeology,” he said. “Someone really cared about this space in the past. That’s what we’re wanting to restore.”

Starowitz and other artists are collaborating with the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council to transform two lots in Ivanhoe from empty spaces into places of community gathering.

It is an idea that has worked in other cities, and Starowitz hopes Ivanhoe’s initiative will spread to other parts of Kansas City, where thousands of vacant lots have become a pressing issue.

The first lot being developed, located next to the offices of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, is envisioned as a “meet-and-greet lot.” Dina Newman, the Grown in Ivanhoe project manager at the council, said the team envisions picnic tables, benches, grills, an orchard and a fire pit, all with the goal of creating an area where neighbors can spend time together.

“This will be a place of peace and play and meditation,” Newman said. “The neighbors said they really wanted permanent grills, and the fire pit will be well-used by Boy Scouts in the community. Sometimes in this neighborhood, you really need a place of safety and comfort.”

Robert Johnston, who has lived in Ivanhoe for 50 years, said he was most excited for the grills.

“We have a lot of lots here with grass that is never cut,” Johnston said. “This will be a good place for people. And if you put grills or a barbecue pit there, everyone will bring meat to cook. You better believe I will be first in line.”

Starowitz said the goal is to complete the meet-and-greet lot by August, though the orchard will take longer to establish. The team then will break ground on a vacant lot a block over, called the “let’s play” lot.

“‘Let’s play’ will be a lot with new play equipment for the kids, but its really going to be about engagement,” Starowitz said. “Whatever the families want to use it for — like a pumpkin-carving festival in the fall.”

The idea behind the project, called Lots of Love, was conceived a few years ago in a Kansas City Art Institute class, Newman said.

“When I came in four years ago, I started to look at the assets of Ivanhoe — one of the assets is that it has an incredible amount of vacant lots,” Newman said. “In the past, those were looked at as a hindrance. Really, they’re an opportunity to create something new.”

Newman said the group of art students worked with neighborhood residents to craft a vision for three vacant lots in Ivanhoe. When the class ended, Newman picked up the project and enlisted the help of Starowitz, a baker by trade who has a hand in a number of city projects.

Newman said the Ivanhoe council owns both of the first two lots and about 200 other vacant lots throughout the neighborhood. She said she didn’t expect the group to stop after the two lots are complete.

“We believe we can have a type of Lots of Love in each part of the neighborhood and that this can be replicated throughout the city,” Newman said. “You don’t need a lot of money, just neighbors who are committed to watching the lot and using it well.”

The first lot is being funded by Capital Federal Savings Bank, and the second by Local Initiatives Support Corp.

Pam Swinney moved to Ivanhoe 15 years ago and said the three vacant properties on her street have added to crime. The “meet-and-greet” lot will be across from her home.

“My grandkids will have a place to play, and we’ll have a place to sit, talk and eat,” she said. “This idea offers different things for different kinds of people, like the orchard or the playground. I’m hoping these are not going to be the only ones.”

One lot already has been transformed in another Kansas City neighborhood.

Charles Brown said he grew attached to the Marlborough area after volunteering with neighborhood kids. He paid the city’s Land Bank $1,200 for the lot, which now offers a bench and four sculptures, all of which Brown designed.

“People have lived here for a long time, working their tail off to get neighborhoods in this city back to what they’re supposed to be,” Brown said.

“There are huge, daunting issues here, but maybe the solutions can be simple. Maybe it’s figuring out what works one lot at a time.”

Thousands of lots

With 18,860 properties listed by the city as vacant, the question of what to do with them has become increasingly significant, said Robin Martinez, a member of a vacant-lot task force created last summer by the city’s Environmental Management Commission.

“In the past year, it’s struck us on the task force how intimidating of a subject this is to tackle and that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution,” Martinez said. “I have to commend Ivanhoe for taking the initiative. We need that grassroots kind of spirit.”

The task force has been working on a report to present to the commission and the Kansas City Council by September, he said. An early report from the task force found that the more than 5,000 city-owned vacant lots cost about $2 million to maintain in 2013.

The largest concentration of vacant lots is in the Third District, which includes Ivanhoe, according to the report.

The idea of dealing with vacant lots creatively — thinking outside of building a structure or planting a community garden — is not a new one, but it has not fully taken root in Kansas City yet, said David Reynolds, the abatement services administrator in the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department.

“Vacancy has been a problem and focus for a while, and the size of it is daunting to a lot of people,” Reynolds said. “Trying to start with two lots feels like nothing, and that’s a large part of the problem. It’s hard to communicate that you can do something without doing everything.”

A citywide conversation on rethinking vacant land started taking hold in St. Louis about two years ago, said Phil Valko, director of sustainability at Washington University in St. Louis and a leader in the Sustainable Land Lab project.

A joint initiative of Washington University and the city of St. Louis, the Sustainable Land Lab held a competition in 2012 that awarded five teams money and a land-lease to implement original projects that transform vacant lots to enhance neighborhoods, he said.

“We’re interested in spurring vacant-land entrepreneurs,” Valko said. “With the level of vacancy in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis have, how can we pass up this opportunity to use it to create sustainable neighborhoods for down the road?”

To reach Caroline Bauman, call 816-234-4449 or send email to cbauman@kcstar.com.

How to help

What about that vacant lot near you?

Anyone can transform a vacant lot so long as you own it or work in collaboration with the owners, said David Reynolds of Kansas City’s Neighborhoods & Housing Services Department.

If it’s a privately owned lot, county records will list who to get in contact with, he said. Otherwise, it will be owned by the city or Land Bank.

“Anyone can purchase an empty lot and create a pocket park or garden,” Reynolds said. “Or you can donate it to the city parks department if you want it to be an official park.”

Caroline Bauman, cbauman@kcstar.com

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