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VOL. 127 | NO. 91 | Wednesday, May 9, 2012

City Moves Forward With 25-Square Blight Strategy

By Sarah Baker

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The city started a pilot program last year to clean up blight by utilizing a 25-square-block strategy.

Three boarded-up Victorian style houses sit in a row in the Rozelle-Annesdale neighborhood. The city has a new plan to fight blight.  

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

Due to the program’s success, the 25-square strategy is being implemented as the strategy for neighborhood improvement going forward. The program entails crews working in predetermined “target zones” to mitigate grass and weed overgrowth, abandoned and dilapidated houses, litter and debris, impassable sidewalks, congested alleys, potholes and vacant lots.

Last year, the city started out looking at 10 target areas. But this year’s goal is to do 15 areas at a time, said Onzie Horne, deputy director of community enhancement. A typical 25-square block area will have some 50 to 60 vacant lots, but that number will vary from one community to another.

“The plan is to sort of tap out at 15 target areas at a time and that 15 in some ways is arbitrarily set based on the number of resources that we have and the number of crews that we have to work with,” Horne said. “But also, it’s a plan to try to cover the entire geography of the city, including the need to go back and mitigate overgrowth, because the grass doesn’t stop growing.”

City crews started their “trial run” about three weeks ago in Orange Mound, where they took the equivalent of some three to four 25-square blocks and concentrated the resources there.

Last week, the city wrapped up in Soulsville and began work in seven other target areas, including parts of South Parkway, Person Avenue, Interstate 240 and Victor Street; Sam Cooper Boulevard, Poplar Avenue, Scott and Hollywood streets; Walker Avenue, South Parkway, Bellevue Avenue and I-240; Shelby Drive, Holmes Road, I-55 and Elvis Presley Boulevard; Chelsea and Jackson avenues, Ayers and Thomas streets; Frayser Boulevard, Whitney Avenue, University and Watkins streets; and Walker, McLemore Avenue, I-240 and Mississippi Boulevard.

There are currently 29 contractor crews that are doing nothing but mowing and clearing property, in addition to several city crews that are tackling “hot tickets,” or issues that require immediate activity.

The 25-square process starts by Memphis City Beautiful interfacing with the neighborhood groups – such as community development corporations and church organizations – and canvassing the area for problems. Code inspectors then cite those with violations before the mitigation, and all the open complaint tickets from the Mayor’s Citizen Service Center will be pulled.

After the 25-square crews have done their work, the city will get back with the neighbors to ask them how they did.

For both the city and the neighborhoods, the most important change year over year is the move from addressing problem properties on a case-by-case basis to a comprehensive one, Horne said. Not only do citizens get better service, but it saves on drive and loading/unloading time because crews are now able to spend more time on abatement.

“We’re being more proactive,” Horne said. “We’re looking for the citizens to help prioritize the areas of mitigation, tell us what special problems they have, and then we come in with a teamed approach to try to address all of those things at once in an area so that there’s a noticeable difference when we leave.”

Horne said the city will be constantly evaluating 25-square and fine-tuning it. For instance, one concept that differs per community is deciding uses for post-demolition to fill the hole created in a community – such as community gardens, serenity parks or public art.

“It’s really a matter of re-establishing in the neighborhood not only cleanliness and safety, but also enhancing the esteem of the citizens, giving them a sense of hope that their neighborhoods can be different, they can be transformed,” Horne said.

There are also some elements that haven’t quite matured yet, such as working with the city’s information technology department to develop a technology overlay that manages the process for all of the crews to assure optimal efficiency and accountability.

“We believe transparency is an important part of this, and we want to get those mechanisms in place where there’s not only metrics where citizens can evaluate and look what we’re managing to accomplish and not accomplish, but also so that they can actually see what we do,” Horne said. “I envision there being a point where with a click of a mouse, you can see where all of our crews are what they’re doing, how effective they are.”

PROPERTY SALES 110 110 3,508
MORTGAGES 42 42 2,321
BANKRUPTCIES 24 24 1,928