Gary’s modest skyline will get a little shorter when the former Sheraton hotel — the fourth-tallest building in the city — comes down after sitting empty for decades, whenever the drawn-out asbestos issue finally gets resolved. The 14-story building with the skywalk that never quite reached the Genesis Convention Center will be torn down to make way for a park.
Razing long-abandoned buildings to create new greenspace may become increasingly common in the Steel City. Derelict houses and boarded-up storefronts could vanish from the landscape.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Harvard Law School graduate who’s working with various area universities to come up with new ideas to rejuvenate Gary, wants to consider letting much of the city revert to nature, at least at first. The idea has been catching on throughout the Rust Belt and could have merit for other local cities that have gone through population declines.
Two-thirds of Illinois' south suburban communities lost population over the last decade. More than 57,600 residents lived in East Chicago in the 1960s, but fewer than 30,000 people call it home today. Think of all the houses that have been left behind.
Gary’s population has shrunk most dramatically, from nearly 180,000 residents in its heyday to about 80,000 today.
The city spans more than 57 square miles. Freeman-Wilson said the city's urban footprint potentially could be shrunk by as much as 40 percent after the demolition of vacant and blighted properties. Lots would be left to return to prairie grass or duneland. Community gardens might even be a possibility.
The big issue is the high cost of providing municipal services, Freeman-Wilson said. Gary has laid off hundreds of city employees in recent years and is scraping by on less than half as much property tax revenue as it received five years ago, as a result of the statewide tax caps.
A geographically smaller city would be less expensive to run, she said. Police officers and firefighters would not have to cover such wide areas. Fewer roads would have to be patched in the spring, fixed in the summer and plowed in the winter.
Since Freeman-Wilson took office, Gary already has demolished about 70 properties near the Indiana University Northwest campus, where the city wants to kindle the sort of development you'd see in a typical college town. The lion's share of the $2.7 million Gary received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year went to that work in the University Park neighborhood. The federal agency has waived requirements that normally limit the share of funding that can go toward demolition, regional administrator Antonio Riley said.
Other Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Flint, Mich., have pursued similar programs aimed at systematically stamping out urban decay. Youngstown, Ohio, pioneered the idea, which is aimed at stopping a death spiral of population decline followed by service cuts that lead more residents to leave, said Aaron Renn, an urban planning expert who writes the influential blog The Urbanophile.
Vacant properties drag down property values, invite crime and make neighborhood blocks look terrible, Renn said. They become havens for drug dealers and targets for arson. They scare off potential homebuyers.
Clearing out largely vacant blocks makes it possible to concentrate resources in more viable sections of Gary, Renn said. For instance, the city already does a good job of policing Miller Beach and could bulk up the police presence in other areas.
Demolition also plants the seeds for eventual redevelopment, Renn said. Gary is filled with workers' cottage-style homes that are small and out of fashion, and most homebuyers would prefer more contemporary homes with bigger kitchens and closets, he said.
"Gary isn't Brooklyn, where people would come swarming back to the brownstones when the crime problem is solved," he said. "The style of housing that's most common is old and not relevant anymore."