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GARY | Finding ways to demolish Gary's nearly 7,000 abandoned homes is a staggering task.

What to do with the empty lots after the homes are razed is another issue altogether.

Environmental leaders in the city are working with Cleveland Botanical Garden to use some of the vacant lots to address stormwater management issues with rain gardens. Officials said the projects are already making a difference.

"People are taking notice," Brenda Scott-Henry, Gary's director of green urbanism and environmental affairs said. "There's a different spirit in the air."

Unrealized potential

Gary long has struggled with the issue of abandoned homes. The mass vacancies have created public safety and economic development challenges for years.

The problem received renewed attention in October 2014 when the bodies of five women linked to alleged serial killer Darren Vann were discovered in abandoned homes there.

The same year, the city received $6.6 million through Indiana's Hardest Hit Blight Elimination Program, which officials estimated would pay for the demolition of 379 -- just 5 percent -- of Gary's 6,800 abandoned, vacant structures.

To date, the city has demolished just more than 80 homes through the program.

While most agree the homes need to come down, what to do with the vacant lots left behind remains to be seen.

Enter the Vacant to Vibrant program. In August 2012, Gary received a five-year, $300,000 grant from Cleveland Botanical Garden through the Great Lakes Protection Fund aimed at green infrastructure projects.

Sandra Albro, director of research for Cleveland Botanical Garden, in Ohio, said Gary is a great pilot site.

"I just see Gary as having a lot of potential that I believe has been unrealized," Albro said. "It has a great location on the lake, naturally sandy soils and great proximity to Chicago."

Gary joins Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y., in the pilot project. Gary's green infrastructure project centers on turning empty lots into rain gardens to assist with stormwater management.

More than 90 percent of Gary's sewers are combined sewers. Gary is operating under a consent decree from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of its lack of a longterm pollution-control plan for the issue.

"As part of our stormwater project, we're looking at how to reduce contaminants going into the system as well," Scott-Henry said. 

Albro said the work is groundbreaking in many respects.

"This isn't meant to be the end-all, be-all for vacant properties, but it's one approach," she said.

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"In many of the neighborhoods in Gary and Cleveland, these are the first investments that have taken place in these neighborhoods in decades."

'Picture perfect'

The city's urban construction team is working on the properties. The team of three residents are part of Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's Gary for Jobs program, which provides job training and employment for former criminal offenders.

"We're making it like picture-perfect now," Marcel Little, 21, of Gary, said of his work with the team.

"It made me feel good seeing the city having this kind of upkeep and making it look nice."

Community engagement in the Aetna neighborhood began early on in coordination with Ryan Mackin, program administrator of the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

"(Mackin) and I canvassed the Aetna neighborhood over a period of four months," Scott-Henry said. "They eventually became very comfortable with us. I think this was really new for them.

"The most important part is they're saying something, and they know they are being heard. To know someone's listening and to have tangible proof of that and to take ownership of it is a powerful thing."

The city decided to install a rain garden for stormwater management on a lot in the 1200 block of Oklahoma Street. 

There are five rain gardens on the site and metal letters spelling out "Aetna" attached to each. Solar-powered lights are also a feature. 

Another site at 1035 Oklahoma St. provided its own challenges.

"This was a burned-out unit that we demolished using our Hardest Hit funds," Scott-Henry said. "Much of this was paved, and it was really costly to pick up all the concrete."

Setting an example

"This block is very different, a lot of abandoned buildings," she said. "But a lot of people are coming out and cleaning up."

The effects of the work are spreading throughout the neighborhoods.

"They're sprucing up their own properties," Scott-Henry said. "One guy said he's going to put up a white picket fence, have a barbecue and invite his family over to look at the site.

"We have neighbors taking care of three, four, five lawns on a block just to keep it looking good."

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