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10.26.2012
Take it to the Bank
Kansas City creates land bank to deal with blight.
Courtesy Kansas City Neighborhoods & Housing Services Department

This month Kansas City begins transferring 3,500 vacant properties it recently acquired from the Jackson County Land Trust into a city-owned land bank, the latest step in a plan to restore blighted communities in the city's core.

A land bank (not to be confused with a land trust) is a public organization that manages and sometimes refurbishes properties intended for future development. In short, a land bank attempts to "flip" the land into a more desirable investment.

The Jackson County Land Trust, regardless of its title, is actually a land bank. But the organization lacks the money to maintain, let alone resell, the enormous amount of Kansas City properties it has acquired. Due to the lack of funds, the city was left to pick up the yearly upkeep costs, which, according to the Kansas City Star, are upwards of $1.5 million.

David Park of the Kansas City Planning Department said the transfer not only provides more funds, but also offers the city “more flexibility and authority" when dealing with the vacant properties. For example, unlike the Jackson County Land Trust, the city has the ability to give properties away or combine two smaller properties to make the land more marketable.

Park said the department is unable to make concrete plans until the conditions of the properties can be properly assessed. He said that at least part of the land will be set aside to make “green spaces” such as community parks and neighborhood gardens.

“There’s been a lot of interest in creating healthy food sources for people that live in the neighborhoods,” he said, adding that the city would like to make them “more readily available for gardening uses that could produce fruits and vegetables.”

He said he hopes such initiatives will attract younger people to Kansas City. “The idea of moving into a neighborhood that needs revitalization—to be part of that movement— is attractive,” said Park. New residents could help reduce blight by encouraging positive redevelopment. “I don’t think we can cause it, but I think we can facilitate it.”

Thanks to increasing vacancies because of the foreclosure crisis, land banking has become more popular in urban areas, said Peter Salsich, a law professor at Saint Louis University who specializes in land-use policy.

For these communities, the question is: Will the banking and repurposing of land be enough to draw homeowners and investors back into communities that have lost their vitality?

“There’s no guarantee that’s going to be successful,” Salsich said, “But at least the city is saying, ‘We’re going to get involved and see if we can allocate some money’.”

The practice has been popping up all over the Midwest, with land banks established in Cleveland, St. Louis, and many other hard-hit Midwestern cities. Cook County, Illinois is currently considering the possibility of creating a bank in Chicago.

Before the city goes to work selling the acreage, though, it must first get its land bank up and running. That means appointing officials to run it and creating by-laws, a process that Park said should be done by late November or early December.

Sarah Fentem