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Kate Davidson

"Blotters" are turning Detroit's empty spaces into family compounds.

DETROIT — Our Changing Gears project is looking at the challenges of the region’s empty places this month.  For many people, the most threatening emptiness isn’t a shuttered factory.  It’s the abandoned property next door.  But in Detroit, some residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods.  They’re annexing vacant lots around them, buying them when they can or just putting up a fence.

They’re not squatters … they’re blotters.

Blot isn’t a bad word.  A design firm coined the term several years ago.  Academia ran with it.

“Blots are properties between the size of an entire block and just a lot.  So, they are consolidations of multiple lots,” says Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan who’s mapped blots.

So, families are creating compounds of multiple lots.  Big deal, right?  Well, keep in mind Detroit was built tightly packed with working class homes.  It sliced up blocks with a very quick knife.  So as the city lost 60 percent of its population, it left these gaping holes in the genetic makeup of neighborhoods.  Blotters aren’t waiting for the city to fix that.

“I call it an everyday remaking,” Dewar says.  “It’s every day there’s a little step in this direction of remaking by people who are pretty invisible.  But over time it becomes a dominant feature of the city.”

People like space.  Margaret Dewar sampled tax-reverted properties resold by the city, up to 2005.  She found more than a quarter were bought by the homeowner next door.

Still, the easiest way to find blotters in Detroit is to look for a very long fence on a lonely street.

Kate Davidson

Paula Besheers and her son Paul Browne tried in vain to buy the empty lot right next door.

Behind one of them is the house Paula Besheers’ grandfather bought in 1925.

“This has been here in the family for four generations,” she says.  “So it’s like 86 years.”

And then, also fenced off, the four empty lots.  Well, not exactly empty…

“I planted in some cherry trees and two apple trees,” says Besheers’ son Paul Browne, who lives a few blocks from the family home.  “I’m attempting to grow some grape vines.  I’ll let you know when I figure out how to get that going good.”

The little orchard, the raspberry patch, the gardens — they’re a relief from the pit bulls, the burnt house and the emptiness across the street. But there’s a catch.

It turns out, the only lot the family actually owns is the one farthest from the house.  HUD sold it for about a hundred bucks.  Browne says the last he checked, the city owned the next lot in, the county the next one, and the city the one after that.  He says the family tried to buy the middle lots years ago, but were told no.  He says it’s probably time to try again.

“They want to sell it, more than willing to buy it off of them,” he says.

So why go to all this trouble?

“’Cause we live next door to it,” Browne says.  “If you go up the next block from here you’ll see what it would look like.  Just overgrown brush piles.  Trash.  Car parts.   And it’s only from stubbornness and perseverance that keeps it from becoming a debris pile.”

Kate Davidson

The family home

Kate Davidson

Across the street

So should cities like Detroit make it easier for residents to take over the vacant space around them?  Detroit’s new planning director Rob Anderson says, basically, yes.

To be clear, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, even post-Katrina New Orleans all have adjacent lot programs on the books already.  In Cleveland, a homeowner can buy the lot next door for as little as a dollar.  In Detroit, two hundred dollars.  Chicago, a thousand.

Rob Anderson says, most importantly, when a homeowner buys the lot next door, they’re taking responsibility for the neighborhood.  They’re also putting land back on the tax rolls.

“Then that’s one parcel that we can rely on a citizen to take care of that the city really can’t afford to take care of,” he says.

Anderson says Detroit has sold about a thousand of these lots in recent years.

Still, the city owns a staggering 60,000 plus parcels of land, most of it vacant.  So the planning department just started reevaluating the adjacent lot program in southwest Detroit, to see how to expedite and promote it.

“We think it’s a tool that really is well suited for this area that we’re working in,” Anderson says.  “And if we can get it right here, it’s easily transferred to the rest of the community.”

Has the tool been underutilized in the past?

“Looks like it to me,” he says.

The program has inherent limitations.  The scale of abandonment in Detroit means many homeowners aren’t just worried about the lot next door.  It’s also the one after that, the one after that, and, in Paula Besheers’ case, the one after that.  But only the vacant parcel right next door meets the guidelines of the city’s current adjacent lot program.  Residents can still buy multiple lots, but they have to go through a different process.

Then, there’s the time factor.  As I was leaving the planning department, an aide mentioned it can take years for residents to get through the bureaucracy of buying the lot next door.  Rob Anderson was shocked.  He said the department’s new goal will be 30 days.  That would bring Detroit in line with cities like Cleveland and Chicago, where it only takes a few months to expand your yard.

*Inform our coverage: Have you taken over empty or abandoned land near you-or know someone who has?


This week, Changing Gears kicks off a look at Empty Places across our region. During November, we’ll be looking at empty buildings, empty property — and how we can fill things up again. In the first part of our series, reporter Dustin Dwyer explores the economic and social cost of emptiness. Things may be better in some neighborhoods, he says, but problems still abound.

Vacant homes in Detroit. Photo: Mary's Detroit Photoblog

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — There is no one number that tells the story of all the empty houses, storefronts, offices and factories in the Midwest. But there are many numbers that tell part of the story.

Like this: One out of ten. One out of ten homes in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin was vacant in 2010. That’s according to the U.S. Census.

Or these numbers:  Twenty-two percent of office space in the Cleveland area is empty. Chicago offices are 19 percent empty. Metro Detroit: almost 27 percent.

Those numbers are from the real estate firm Grubb & Ellis. Fred Liesveld from the firm’s Detroit office says those numbers have actually been getting better for almost a year. He said of the 27 percent vacancy figure: “We haven’t seen that in a decade. That’s just great news.”

And really, there’s a lot of good news in the Midwest. In every city there’s at least one neighborhood that used to be a lot worse.

Where I live in Grand Rapids, that neighborhood is Heartside. Heather Ibrahim has worked in Heartside for more than a decade, at a non-profit called Dwelling Place. I met up with her during an art event on what used to be one of the neighborhood’s worst blocks.

“Just looking down the street and seeing how many buildings have been revitalized, it’s just amazing,” she said. “It amazes me the changes that have happened.”

Ibrahim says when she first started working in Heartside, maybe half the buildings were falling apart. Now, she estimates 80 percent of the neighborhood has been restored.

But even in Heartside, Ibrahim believes 20 percent of the buildings are still in bad shape. Windows are boarded up. Storefronts are empty.

Now let’s look at Detroit. Last year, a collection of groups called The Detroit Data Collective did a survey of the entire city. What they found is that more than a quarter of the city’s residential space is now completely vacant. We’re not talking about a row of empty houses. We’re talking about an urban prairie.

Jeff Horner, of the urban studies department at Wayne State University in Detroit, has lived in the area all his life. He says he’ll take the prairie over what used to be there.

“You never get used to seeing the same house you drive past that was lost in a fire and here’s still this burned out hulk that just sits there for years,” he said.

And for those who want to just think of this kind of a thing as a Detroit problem, it’s not.

In many ways, Chicago is the shining example of what can go right in the Midwest economy. But after the 2008 real estate crash, the emptiness has been creeping there as well. And, like everywhere, it has a devastating impact.

And now we’re talking about things that can’t be measured in numbers.

“The urban environment has a profound impact on psychological functioning,” said Lynn Todman, an urban planner who works at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. Last year, she did a mental health study in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. The area has been devastated by foreclosures.

Todman says she spoke to one man who had to go into the abandoned houses for his job. The man told Todman about dogfights, squatters and runaway kids.

“I tried to get a little more information out of him about the kinds of things and activities that took place, perhaps things that weren’t widely reported in the news. And he said, ‘you don’t want to know,’” Todman recalls.

Todman says crime-ridden neighborhoods would have crime even if there wasn’t a bunch of vacant buildings. But when there is, the crime can spread. It can affect the people living in the homes that remain.

It can lead to stress, which leads to learning problems for young kids. Heart problems for adults. Drug use.

Add it all up, and Todman says this less-measurable impact of empty buildings – it will go on even after the economy improves and the buildings fill back up.

As Changing Gears kicks off its look at Empty property and places across the Midwest, here’s an assessment that may help put the problem in perspective.

According to AtlanticCities, 19 types of buildings dominated the post-war landscape, and share the blame for dragging the country into its recession. The list comes from University of Michigan professor Christopher Leinberger, an urban-use strategist.

Photo by Buckeye Impressions via Flickr

They include supermarket anchored strip malls; shopping malls with big stores at the corners; suburban detached starter homes; and self-storage facilities. They’re all designed for suburban communities where driving is required — and don’t suit a nation whose population may be shifting back to cities.

Now, a  number of those places are emptying out, leaving behind headaches for state and local governments. That’s a subject we’ll be exploring in our series, which starts tomorrow.

“We built the wrong product in the wrong location, and nobody wants it any more,” he says. “That’s the reason for the housing crisis, and therefore the mortgage crisis, and therefore the Great Recession.”

As construction picks back up once the recovery is under way, all those types need to be banished and replaced by more innovative solutions, Leinberger tells AtlanticCities. Read more about his recommendations here.

All over our region, the past is still present, in the form of empty buildings, property, even corporate campuses. The cost to our cities, in lost tax revenue, and in blight, is enormous.

But entrepreneurs, businesses and government agencies are taking steps to fill in those empty spaces. Throughout November, Changing Gears will take a look at reusing our empty places and the challenges involved. Our first report, from Dustin Dwyer, will air this Wednesday.

In some cases, it’s as simple as taking a building — like  Union High School in Grand Rapids, Mich. (my

Union Square condominiums, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Photo by Micki Maynard


mother’s alma mater) — and finding a new use for it, such as condominiums. In others, it requires patience and cutting through lots of red tape.

We’d love to hear from you. What’s the best re-use that you’ve seen of a previously empty building? Let us know. Have you bought empty property? How do you plan to use it?

If you’ve got pictures, include them in your answers or send them to us at Please include the location and how we can get in touch with you.