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Vacant to Vibrant: A Success Story

Photos: (Above left) Kara Tweedy, left, and Drew Arensberg, right, have worked to restore two vacant lots in the Mt. Hope Neighborhood. There are an estimated 3,900 vacant houses and lots in the UNI neighborhoods. (Above right) Clearing the lot has been challenging. One hot summer day Kara says she tilled her soil only to have all the dock and chicory grow back and fully cover the lot in a week.

While vacant lots pose a threat in many neighborhoods across the metro, they also provide opportunities for conservation, economic vitality and healthy outdoor areas for neighborhoods. A vacant lot is typically defined as a neglected parcel of property that is not occupied by commercial or residential buildings. In many cases with vacant lots, houses once occupied the land, but as they fell into disrepair they were condemned, burned or demolished.

Since 2012, The Urban Neighborhood Initiative (UNI) has led “Vacant to Vibrant: the Vacant Properties Community Impact Initiative” (V2V.) The initiative represents a group of 45 community leaders representing more than 30 organizations, including federal government agencies, KCMO City Departments, developers and real estate entities, Legal Aid of Western Missouri, and the University of Missouri, KC. The Green Spaces work group has been co-led by Heartland Conservation Alliance and Mid-America Regional Council.

This summer, Heartland Conservation Alliance is providing technical assistance to Kara Tweedy and Drew Arensberg, awardees of an UNI mini grant to support restoring a vacant lot using the Vacant to Vibrant Field Guide, developed by the work group.

After years of attending Neighborhood Association meetings, they found a small but powerful community near Troost Lake called Mt. Hope. After working with KC Land Bank and conducting careful research on properties that would best align with their goals, they settled on a property on Highland Avenue.

“The mini grant gives communities the ability to work directly with UNI and their partners to transform three vacant lots into our dream space," said Kara. “With the UNI mini grant, we will be able to plant a memorial garden to commemorate the life of a young man whose remains were found on the property in 2016. We want to help his mother keep his memory alive through a beautiful gathering space."

Kara and Drew are working to create a working urban farm they hope to use for educational purposes and to economically and aesthetically bolster their community. They also have a compost company called East Aster Brewing.

For Kara, and her neighborhood association, there have been many ups-and-downs throughout the process of restoring the land. Code violation letters from the city prevented them from making progress at times. Illegal dumping has hampered progress as well.

“One time someone dumped all their trash and a few mattresses on top of our freshly made garden beds," she shared.

While this work can certainly have its fair share of challenges and hard work, Kara says the hard work is worth it and a very valuable experience for her and her community.

"Our neighbors are awesome!" Kara explains. “The community has embraced our project and have made us feel so comfortable and as if we have been a part of the community for years."

Heartland Conservation Alliance staff and partners are working to support the project by providing support through organizing volunteer days to remove invasive species, and by performing a tree analysis.

“And most importantly this process opened our eyes to ways we can improve our impact on our property and community,” says Kara “It is also a project that can build relationships and strengthen communities.”

Kara explains that restoring these lots has been two long years of planning and physically exhausting work. Her advice to others is to recognize and account for the amount of maintenance that the property will require once you own it - the city might be on you to mow it, cut down shrubs, maintain trees, pickup rubbish, etc.

"We feel responsible to help improve the flow of wealth into these communities," explains Kara. "We weren’t looking for a vacant lot, we were looking for a community."

For more information about restoring vacant lots, contact Heartland Conservation Alliance at info@heartlandconservationalliance or call 816-759-7305.

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