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Why not turn vacant lots into gardens?

Most folks would see a weed-strewn vacant lot squeezed between two houses on a largely forgotten street.

Not Roxanne Chase.

She lives next door to the vacant lot. She looks at it and, in her mind's eye, pictures grass and flowers and maybe a trellis. She sees not what is, but what could be, on this and countless other vacant eyesores across Buffalo -- if City Hall wises up.

Roxanne Chase lives on the south end of Fillmore Avenue, in the shadow of the Niagara Thruway. The house she shares with her son has been in the family for 85 years. The vacant lot came last year, when an abandoned house was demolished. Chase contacted city officials about buying the basically worthless plot of land. The city, in its infinite shortsightedness, demanded thousands of dollars -- more money than Chase has.

"I am poor," offered Chase, 54, a soft-voiced, widowed mom who is looking for work. "Whatever money I don't have to spend on buying the lot, I can put into making it nice, with flowers and benches."

This story is bigger than Roxanne Chase. Buffalo's full-bore demolition policy has left in its wake thousands of vacant lots. Next to many of them are homeowners like Chase, who would gladly turn an eyesore into a lawn for kids to play on or a garden to brighten the street.

"The city," Chase said, "should be happy to have people take these lots off of its hands."

On some city streets, homeowners can claim an adjacent lot for $1. The policy is called "homesteading." Instead of the city owning -- and, frankly, not caring for -- thousands of vacant lots, the people next door take them. It deepens homeowners' stake in the city, it turns eyesores into assets, it raises property values -- all of which helps Buffalo.

The problem is that the city's outdated homesteading map, drawn a half-century ago, does not include many of its bleakest streets. Activists for years wanted the city to expand homesteading to every tattered block. City officials countered that Albany sets the homesteading boundaries. Yet nothing stops the city from sidestepping state law and simply slapping a bargain-basement price -- say, $25 -- on lots outside of the homesteading boundary.

It is the sort of change people expected to see in the idea-barren anti-poverty plan that Mayor Byron Brown unveiled last spring. Widespread homesteading will not, by itself, transform Buffalo. But it will help.

The city's plan to demolish 5,000 abandoned structures in five years gives Buffalo a growth industry in vacant lots. By stretching the homesteading boundaries, City Hall can make something out of nothing.

For months, Chase has gone back and forth with city officials on the price of the lot. It is the same story on other city streets.

"I don't understand how the city tells people they have to spend a couple of thousand dollars for a vacant lot on a blown-out street," said local housing expert Mike Clarke. "The city ends up owning these things yet doesn't have the resources to maintain them."

The way I see it, selling the lots for a bargain-basement discount puts them in good hands, pumps up property values and claims the small victories that help the city in the long run.

It took a while, but the mayor seems ready to sign on.

"We think there is a lot of merit to the idea," said mayoral spokesman Peter Cutler. "We agree that the [homesteading area] needs to be updated. It is something we look forward to doing."

I hope that Brown makes good on the promise. Where vacant lots now fester, flowers can bloom. Roxanne Chase is ready. She is not alone.


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