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Taking back the neighborhoods

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Vicky D'Augustino says it's been a struggle to get the city to take care of this vacant lot next door to her home on Webster Avenue in Rochester's Beechwood neighborhood. PHOTO BY MATT DETURCK
  • Vicky D'Augustino says it's been a struggle to get the city to take care of this vacant lot next door to her home on Webster Avenue in Rochester's Beechwood neighborhood. PHOTO BY MATT DETURCK

The vacant lot next to Vicky D'Augustino's home on Webster Avenue looks decent these days, and D'Augustino doesn't mind taking some of the credit.

"In the past I've had to fight tooth and nail to get [the grass] cut," she says. "And when they did cut it, it was disgusting. They would mow around the trash. If there was something big out there — branches — they would just mow around it."

"This year so far, they have done better," D'Augustino says. "I guess it was all the complaining."

The lot is maintained by the City of Rochester, but it used to be the responsibility of the North East Area Development neighborhood group. When the lot was maintained by NEAD, D'Augustino says, it always looked good.

NEAD at one time had a city contract for maintenance — including mowing, weed and graffiti removal — of vacant and privately owned lots in the Beechwood neighborhood, where D'Augustino lives. The contract was worth between $60,000 and $80,000, says John Page, former head of NEAD who now leads the South East Area Coalition and the South Wedge Planning Committee

The City of Rochester also used to have Adopt a Lot and Adopt a Block programs, where it would pay neighborhood organizations to do routine maintenance of vacant lots and commercial corridors.

All three programs helped keep up the appearance of the neighborhoods, and the Beechwood contract also worked as a jobs program, Page says.

But City Hall stopped Adopt a Block and Adopt a Lot years ago, and the Beechwood contract was only a pilot program. Officials say the city just didn't have the money to continue the programs, and that there were union issues.

"What happened is that the union said, 'Wait a minute, you're effectively outsourcing this work. And you're impacting our capacity to be employed,'" says Mayor Tom Richards.

But ending the programs has hurt the neighborhoods, Page says. Maintenance isn't done quickly enough, he says, and the work isn't always good quality. The shabby lots drag down the entire neighborhood, Page says.

"It's the broken window theory," he says. "When you don't take care of something immediately, there's another broken window. The small things add up to big things after a while."

Page and other neighborhood leaders, including George Moses of Group 14621 and NEAD, say they would like to work with the city again. They say they want responsibility for maintenance of vacant and privately owned lots — although there's a legal process that has to be followed to gain access to private lots.

"We'd like to be responsible for our own neighborhoods and not have to rely on outside sources," Page says. "So if there's a problem or issue, it would come back on us and not the black hole at City Hall. Now if you get graffiti [for example], it could be weeks, it could be months, or it could not be taken care of at all."

Rochester continues to try to "right size" its housing supply to match its present-day population. But the city still has about 3,000 vacant lots. Much of the maintenance of those lots, including graffiti removal and spring cleanups, is done by city employees, but the mowing goes to outside contractors: one contract for each side of the city.

"We saw that we could do it less expensively by bidding it out," says Paul Holahan, commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Services. "I think we get the average lot cut for about $10."

DES does a big cleanup before mowing season every year to remove accumulated debris. The department's budget allows for nine or 10 cuttings a year, Holahan says, with more frequent mowing done in the spring and fall growing seasons.

"They're not cut quite as frequently as you would cut your own lawn," he says. "But they're cut frequently enough as to not stand out as an eyesore."

"I think over the last six years there's been a couple of times where we've had a contractor who just failed to perform," he says. "So we had to scramble and re-bid and in the interim, try to keep up with it."

The contractors are supposed to pick up the trash before they mow, Holahan says, unless the lot's really bad, and then it's the city's responsibility.

Through Adopt a Block, neighbors were paid to clean up commercial corridors twice a week. The program was very popular, Holahan says. About 16 neighborhoods participated, he says, and about 20 more wanted in.

Instead of Adopt a Block, the city now does citywide Clean Sweeps and targeted mini Clean Sweeps in individual neighborhoods. Holahan says he knows the neighborhoods don't look as good as they did when Adopt a Block and Adopt a Lot were in place.

"We're trying to make sure we have litter baskets out, and we're trying to promote people not littering," he says. "But I don't right now have the resources to do litter pickups twice a week on all the commercial corridors."

City Council member Carolee Conklin says some city homeowners with malls in the middle of their streets — like residents on Central Avenue and Seneca Parkway — pay the city extra for maintenance of those malls.

Money is the main obstacle to giving neighborhoods control of the lots. Richards says that previously the funding came mostly from federal grants, and that money has been cut steadily over the years.

"We have some serious financial issues," Council member Conklin says. "And I'm not sure it's the responsibility of the city to support financially the neighborhood groups."

Even if the city had the money, Richards says, there would still be the union issue. Union contracts and civil service policies prevent work from being taken away from union employees "unless the work itself goes away," Richards says.

"I'm sympathetic," he says. "If I were the union, I'm going to have an attitude about that, particularly in an environment where the city's employment is going down. But what happens then is we don't get some things done."

But Richards and Holahan say they're willing to talk to neighborhood leaders to see if there's a way to get the neighborhoods more involved in the maintenance work.

"I'm always open to ways to try to tweak it so that it works better," Holahan says.

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