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GARY | The city plans to spend about $500,000 to convert 15 city-owned sites into green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, as part of efforts to reduce the amount of untreated stormwater draining into the city's sewer system.

The Gary City Council took initial action Tuesday on an ordinance establishing a 2015 budget for the city's Department of Green Urbanism Grey to Green: Vacant to Vibrant initiative.

Under the initiative, supported by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city will select 15 city-owned parking lots to convert to more biologically friendly surfaces. Approximately 10 Gary residents are being trained in green infrastructure implementation and will be employed to install and maintain the new areas as part of the project.

Gary and Hammond are two of about 108 communities in Indiana in which both sewer and stormwater are collected in a combined system. Such systems can lead to overflows of raw sewage into the water. The two Northwest Indiana cities are the only ones in the state without long-term control plans in place.

As part of a consent decree with state and federal officials, efforts are being made to try to clean up some of the waterways impacted by the discharges. A key part of creating a long-term control plan to deal with the problem is the ability of the district to pay for some of the changes. The plans can cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said earlier this year that the city is working closely with the U.S. EPA in examining how the city can use green infrastructure and other less costly measures to accomplish the project. 

The council Tuesday moved the ordinance related to the Vacant to Vibrant initiative to its Finance Committee for further discussion at Tuesday's committee meeting. On that date, officials are also expected to get into more details on how it plans to use a $500,000 Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in connection with redevelopment in the East University Park area of the city.

The city was one of seven applicants across the country to get the federal grant. According to HUD officials, violent crime in University Park East is almost three times Gary's average rate. As part of the project, the city and Police Department will come up with strategies to lower crime in the area.

The area is also near Indiana University and Ivy Tech and some well-established residential and business areas. Freeman-Wilson said earlier that as improvements are made there it will attract more interest from potential homeowners and businesses.

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Ed has been with The Times since January 2014. He previously covered government affairs for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. Prior to Scripps, he was with the Chicago Regional Bureau of Copley News Service.