Vantage Point: (D)Evolved Planning

A 376Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

It’s generally when desperate friends need our professional expertise that we find ourselves most frustrated by the mushrooming problems encountered.

Urban planning has been around since humans first ceased roaming and settled together in enclaves meant to ease the sharing of goods and services. Maps of early American cities and towns depict travel ways and residential areas and markets: images of life at the time, frozen for posterity.

Formalized urban planning is evident in early "company towns", beginning with the 1820s textile mill community of Lowell, Massachusetts. But when industry fades and local wealth leaves with it, remaining decayed and abandoned buildings and infrastructure are termed "blight." To undo this condition and build anew, the approach begun in the 1950s was to condemn this blight and plan a new community face for a fresh start under the name of "urban renewal."

Some cities still struggle mightily to find new footing; best known is Detroit and its urban farming in blocks of former housing. Others succeed in finding new cultural focus. Still others are trapped with their incomplete plans and visions from the mid-twentieth century. This last situation can result in some odd (and exasperating) situations. So begins my tale.

Our Fair City suffered the flight of industry and resultant many slowly crumbling vacant buildings broken into by vandals or squatters. It approved a redevelopment and renewal plan in 1959 and began massive acquisitions of real estate in the 1960s while striking some portions of intervening streets from City plans to make way for parking, housing, and pedestrian walkways, erasing the past to begin anew, planning a new future.

Things that can go wrong often will. The 1961 ordinance vacating an east-west stub of Cambridge Street, running between north-south 7th Street and Marshall Street, did not mention allocation to the adjoining property owners. Thereafter, this stub of former Cambridge Street was included in a deed to the City’s Redevelopment Authority.

Subsequent 1968 conveyance to a development company noted a 1960 agreement between the Redevelopment Authority and the City. But the planned parking lot and pedestrian walkway mentioned in this deed never transpired. Eventually an apartment complex arrived on 7th Street after final conveyance in 2006, with the vacated stub and 12-foot wide alley in its deed.

Meanwhile, a different scenario unfolded on the north side of former Cambridge Street. These buildings, acquired in a similar massive condemnation, were sold off individually. My friend’s parcel first came out of Redevelopment Authority ownership in 1976. The building on his lot extends the full width of his property, as city structures often do. This was not a problem while the stub of Cambridge to the south and the 12-foot wide alley to the rear remained open, if dormant. But enter the dragon in the form of tax ratables: the multistory apartment complex with title to the stub and the alley. 8-foot tall gateless fences, allowable by ordinance, now encircle the small open area behind my friend’s building, precluding emergency exit. A padlocked gate across the Marshall Street frontage of the stub of former Cambridge completes exclusion from the southerly face of his building to repair vents, windows, and façade.

And so I got roped into the game. Could I figure out a non-litigative solution, since the apartment owners were dismissive?

One of the joys of working with municipalities is deflection from one department to another as each disclaims any responsibility or ability to help. The usual suspects–Licenses and Inspections regarding the new fence’s blockage of fire escape; Zoning regarding placement of fences on or near lines; Planning for intent of renewal plans; Streets regarding ownership allocation of the vacated stub street–have been mostly unenlightening (but the Surveyors have been great). My "to do" list includes further researching the chain of title to find the origin of the 12-foot alley (private or public?) and if properly expunged and conveyed, with possibly another hundred years still to go.

In our work with developers and redevelopers, we surveyors should pay attention to repercussions on the other side of the property line. Here, if the stub street had gone half to each adjoiner, the problem would not exist. But in looking too far ahead and assuming it would condemn and consolidate all properties in the area, the City never considered that separate lots could be affected if they exited the renewal plan. As it acquired property north and south of the vacated stub street, the City possibly considered merger of title had occurred and treated that stub as a lot. But on selling the building to the north in 1976, the roots of the current dilemma were planted.

Whether access or drainage or siltation, we should advise our clients on "good neighbor" policies above and beyond the strict minimum of ordinances, statutes, and regulations. This is Planning that builds strong communities and leads to true community revitalization.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 376Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE