Voices of Youth: Vacant Battle Creek buildings near schools tempt youth to explore

This story was written by Mar’Chionna Sardin as part of the Battle Creek Voices of Youth Program. Her mentor was J.R. Reynolds, a local journalist. The banner artwork was created by fellow Voices of Youth participant, Athena McCarthy. The charts were provided by Christopher P. Lussier of the City of Battle Creek Community Development. The Voices of Youth Battle Creek Program is produces by Southwest Michigan Second Wave, underwritten by the Kellogg Community Foundation, the City of Battle Creek, the Battle Creek Foundation, and the BINDA Foundation.

Battle Creek, Michigan. A beautiful, historic city that consists of murals, statues, and multiple schools. All of these aspects add to the beauty of the city, but what about all the abandoned buildings?

Derelict structures are scattered throughout the City of Battle Creek, some of which sit right next to schools and businesses. Some people believe these abandoned buildings are decreasing the safety of Battle Creek’s citizens, and some might even say impacting the perception of the city. These unoccupied structures silently encourage people – in particular high school students from nearby schools – to break into these buildings out of curiosity. And it happens more often than people realize.

Picture of a colorful mural on the side of a building on Calhoun St., near downtown Battle CreekThese vacant buildings are providing students, who’ve left school or skipped school, with a sort of haven in which they often tend to make poor choices. Not only might the students regret these choices later, but their parents or guardians may begin to question their residency in Battle Creek areas, along with regretting their decision of schooling their children in Battle Creek's schools.

To a casual observer, a good number of Battle Creek structures have been abandoned over the years, and in the eyes of some of the city's residents, this causes unwanted issues. Some people say a solution is to renovate more of the buildings. Why hasn’t renovation taken place yet? According to Christopher Lussier, Community Development Manager for the City of Battle Creek, the city has historic lows of vacancy but the answer to why some buildings are still decrepit and decaying is complex and requires multiple approaches.

Opportunities for redevelopment

Voices of Youth spoke with Mary Smith, a local English teacher who is currently a long-term substitute teacher at Battle Creek Central High School. Smith, who was born in Battle Creek and has lived there throughout her life, describes Battle Creek as a safe, growing city with many opportunities and with more positive changes to come. Smith has noticed the derelict structures, and in response, says, “There are a lot of opportunities for the abandoned buildings – they should be put to use.” 

Picture of abandoned business sitting on W. Van Buren St., not far from Battle Creek Central High School.Smith’s take on the abandoned structures is that they have a lot of potentials to contribute to bettering Battle Creek. She says abandoned buildings and residences can have positive effects as well as negative ones. “A student could be walking by an abandoned house and think, ‘Hey I could turn this into something,’ and then later decide this is what they want to do when they grow up,” says Smith. 

This artwork was created by Voices of Youth co-participant Athena McCarthy.She talks about how these buildings could open a door to the creativity of those around them, including the students in the schools next door. This response focuses on the derelict buildings as bundles of bright futures waiting to happen. Smith agrees that renovation would be a good idea and that the blight could be replaced with projects that benefit the community, like small businesses.

In this way, Smith says, the buildings could be put to use for the good of those who could use a place to begin their careers, rather than the structures eroding.

Invitations to congregate

Teenagers, however, often see the buildings differently. Aya Al Khalidi, a sophomore student at Battle Creek Central High School walks the same route to school as her teacher, Mary Smith, every day, but views the buildings differently. Aya sees the situation at eye level, as a teenager with curious and active peers. Aya was raised in Battle Creek and has been a resident of this city for nine years. 

APicture of an abandoned factory also sitting on W. Van Buren St., across from abandoned business..Although much about the city is calming to the eye, Aya admits she would not describe Battle Creek as a safe city, a much agreed-upon statement amongst Battle Creek Central High School students. This observation demonstrates different perspectives related to age differences. In her time growing up in Battle Creek, Aya says she has noticed a lot of abandoned buildings and houses. In contrast to Smith’s view, Aya says, “It makes us look bad and lowly -- as if our city is run down. It affects our schools because kids get curious and break in.”

Aya goes on to explain how students sometimes leave school to break into nearby abandoned structures to do things like smoke and vape. Many students of Battle Creek's schooling system have noticed this happening often amongst their peers, although many teachers and adults seem to be much less aware of these issues. When asked whether or not a renovation of the blight would be ideal, Aya replied, “Yes definitely! They look scary!”

Aya says the blight could be replaced with parks, green spaces, or empty lots for more businesses. 

Projects are underway

After hearing from Battle Creek residents, the big questions were answered with facts by a professional on the matter. What are the facts? 

Christopher Lussier, a Community Development Manager for the City of Battle Creek, Michigan, describes the city he’s lived in for 22 years as a safe, beautiful place that has improved significantly in value and other aspects in the past ten years. He mentions that property vacancy in the city is at an all-time low. “Owner housing in Battle Creek is 97% occupied, up from 93.5% in 2010.” (These stats were determined using water usage records; properties that don’t use water within three consecutive months are considered vacant.)

(Picture of an abandoned house on N. Wood St., on the corner of a lively neighborhood.One reason for delayed renovation is the lack of resources a property owner has which, with recent inflation, is being monitored closely. Lussier says, “We have found that tax delinquency is a good indicator of whether folks are struggling to maintain their home. If folks are delaying paying their taxes, they are more likely to put off making needed repairs. Delinquency rates slowly dropped over the past decade, until the onset of the pandemic, after which there was a sharp increase in delinquency.” 

During Lussier’s start in Battle Creek, he discovered that the abandoned structures were a popular concern amongst citizens. After hearing these concerns, Lussier and his team went to work immediately to make a difference.

Lussier says, “I got my start in Battle Creek in 2002 going door to door organizing neighbors around the issues that concerned them. Vacant and abandoned buildings were a huge concern. I worked with members of the City's neighborhood planning councils to form a group called Neighbors Against Dangerous Buildings. 

“The group advocated first to have three burned-out buildings on Corwin and Harrison Streets torn down. The buildings had sat in the neighborhood for years, badly burned and open to entry, so when they finally came down it was a huge victory.” 

When abutting neighborhoods became aware of this, they approached Lussier and his team in hopes that they do the same for the derelict buildings/houses in their area. Because of this, it became evident that this was an even bigger problem than they had realized. After many steps and collaborations, they began to focus on changing public policy. This led to two impactful measures, which would be the creation of the current vacant buildings ordinance in 2006, and the choice (by the County Treasurer) to opt into Land Banking legislation in 2004.

These two aspects led to the creation of the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority. In 2011-2013, the amount of vacant and derelict buildings reached its peak at around 1,200 abandoned properties. This number has decreased rapidly since then, now leaving the number of vacant properties on the registry at a low 403 today in 2022. The vacant properties are secured and monitored by City Code Compliance officers monthly.

“Most of these (buildings) are privately owned, so it's up to the owners to decide what they want to do with them. Owners are required to keep them secured and pay a $40 a month monitoring fee, but other than that, they are not required by law to do anything else with them,” says Lussier.

Some people say that abandoned houses/buildings have negative effects on our city, and others say they have positive effects. Lussier shines some insight on both sides of the debate. He says a vacant property in good condition isn't typically a problem. “Numerous studies have demonstrated that.” 

A building in disrepair, however, lowers property values and can impact residents’ feelings of safety and well-being.

“A property that is neglected or blighted does have a negative impact on surrounding property values and does pose additional risks to a community. These are well documented in literature and studies on the subject.” 

People are wondering why abandoned houses and buildings, especially those close to schools, are yet to be renovated. “Actually, most are either rehabilitated or re-occupied without the need for extensive repairs—usually by private owners.”

“For properties that are badly deteriorated or have been vacant for a really long time, the costs to repair can be far more than the value of the home after repairs are completed. This makes it very difficult for private owners to justify the renovation,” says Lussier. “Grant dollars from the City or its partners could be used, but again that is very expensive.”

Lussier goes on to explain how it’s much more affordable and less expensive to maintain a property and keep it from becoming blight than it is to fix a property that has already been consumed by blight. This is why the City invests its grant funds more predominantly in maintained properties. This shows why code compliance is an important part of every community; it helps neighborhoods to appear decent while also minimizing blight. 

Although renovation costs vary widely, it is not uncommon for derelict properties in downtown neighborhoods to cost between $70k to $150k to renovate.

So When will renovation finally take place, if ever?

According to Lussier, the re-purposing of vacant properties has already begun and has been in action for a while. He says re-utilization of vacant land is happening all the time, just not at the scale some of us might like. Vacant land has been used to do infill housing (64 FremontSt., 62 N. Wabash Ave, 122 McKinley, 28 Franklin St.), create community gardens, pocket parks, or side-lotted to adjacent neighbors, not to mention a good amount of redevelopment depending on the market.

Vacant Building Outcomes, City of Battle Creek“Public funds can be used to fill in a gap on a project, but there aren't enough of these funds to do it alone. The private sector has to see value in the project; therefore, we have to be really strategic with our public investments and use them in a way that capitalizes on positive market trends or is catalytic in a way that will shift what the market values,” says Lussier. 

He adds that an upcoming project by New Level Sports Ministries to redevelop vacant land on Van Buren Street is being funded by Lussier’s team to create the Youth Village Learning Center, a positive use of the vacant property.

Abandoned or neglected, the unoccupied houses near Battle Creek Central High School pose an unwanted invitation to youth and are an eyesore. But
for the many citizens of Battle Creek wondering when their city will be renovated, this Voices of Youth reporter discover an answer: renovation is already underway. Although it may not be at the pace some would like, small steps toward renovation are happening throughout Battle Creek all the time. It’s a process that cannot be rushed, but one that will have a huge impact over time.

Mar’Chionna Sardin is a sophomore at Battle Creek Central High School. She is a multi-athletic, honors student who enjoys art, sports, games, and writing. In her free time, she likes to paint and play basketball with her siblings.

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