City’s strategy for dealing with empty lots just isn’t cutting it - The Buffalo News

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City’s strategy for dealing with empty lots just isn’t cutting it

Ah, city living. Woodchucks. Skunks. Fields of knee-high grass. It’s practically an urban paradise out there.

It’s spring in Buffalo, and aside from the euphoric high everyone gets from the emergence of warm weather comes rain. Some years, lots of it. Quick downpours. Foggy mornings. Soaking thunderstorms. In case you haven’t noticed, it tends to rain a bit once the snow finally melts.

Anyone who owns a patch of grass knows all that rain is like Miracle Grow for lawns. No sooner do you get the John Deere back in the garage than you need it again. And again.

But not the city. It seems to deploy a different type of strategy for the feverishly fast growth of spring: Just wait until some lots get several feet high before cutting them down.

The Brown administration told The News last month that the city was about two weeks behind in cutting grass because of the wet spring. That’s understandable. Who hasn’t had trouble keeping up with water-logged lawns?

But grass doesn’t get to be knee-high – or worse – because you skipped a few days of mowing. It gets that way when a blade hasn’t hit the grass in a season.

Blame it on the rain. Or the warmth. We’ve heard it before.

Weather has been the mantra of city officials deflecting criticism for more than a decade – and more than one administration – as residents have complained again and again of fields of unkempt grass in late spring and early summer on vacant city-owned lots.

Take, for example, a story from June 2010, in which a streets director blamed a wet June for slowing city crews. “All the rain has made for some iffy days.”

Or in July 2003, when the public works commissioner told The News’ City Hall reporter: “The weather wasn’t cooperating with us.”

Or in June 2002, when one resident told The News: “We have grass so high, you could call it a jungle” and a city official, once again, said that “rain has been our biggest problem.”

Back then, there weren’t nearly as many vacant city-owned lots. A story in 2001 pinned the number of empty city-owned parcels at nearly 4,600 out of 11,872. Today, the city alone owns about 10,000, thanks, in part, to more aggressive work to tear down abandoned houses.

The demolitions are a good thing. But the city needs an effective strategy for dealing with empty lots. The current one just isn’t cutting it.

The city has made some attempts at addressing the race against spring rain. One year it moved bulk trash days to free up crews. Back in 2001, the city poured more than half a million dollars into hiring contractors to maintain city lots, but officials the next year said they had seen only mixed results.

Perhaps it’s just not possible for city crews to do the type of maintenance needed to keep up with 10,000 – and growing – vacant lots.

Other cities have found ways. Hire temps in May and June. Blitz neighborhoods. Create an adopt-a-lot program. Make it easier for neighbors to purchase the lots. Organize volunteer brigades. Plant slow-grow grass when houses are demolished. Encourage more community gardens.

Do something different. Because the same old strategy is getting us just one place.

What’s that they say about the definition of insanity?


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