What Helps or Hinders Nonprofit Developers in Reusing Vacant, Abandoned, and Contaminated Property? Findings from Detroit and Cleveland

February 2009
Margaret Dewar

Many cities of the Northeast and Midwest have experienced loss of population and industry since the 1950s. The resulting drop in demand for land has led to owners' abandonment of property and to vacant land after demolition of derelict structures. The result is large residential areas with vacant land and structures awaiting demolition, former retail strips with few buildings remaining, and large tracts of previously industrial property, often still occupied by vacant industrial buildings. Manufacturing, gas stations, dry cleaners, and various other uses left land contaminated.

Because nonprofit developers are such important actors in remaking abandoned areas of cities, they have a major role in the reuse vacant, abandoned, and contaminated property. Factors that help or hinder their reuse of such land are important in determining what such developers can accomplish. This paper investigates what causes nonprofit developers to succeed or fail in reusing this land. The first section of the paper explains the design of the research. The sections that follow discuss findings on reuse of land by nonprofit developers in Cleveland and Detroit and the reasons for the differences in the two cities' experiences.

This study compares the experiences of nonprofit developers in Detroit and Cleveland, a useful comparison because indicators of demand for land are nearly identical, but nonprofit developers' reuse of property is very different. The differences in the experiences of reuse of property can reveal institutional, legal, political, and social factors that affect reuse because the market is not the explanation.