By Ed Runyan
Dennis Blank says vacant lots in parts of Warren are like the background elements of a painting.
Many of the homes are still great focal points of the painting, but the vacant lots around them detract from the overall picture.
The city and Trumbull County are making strides to rid the town of dilapidated houses, but the vacant lots left behind still detract from the overall scene.
So Blank, a Warren native who returned home after retiring from a career with the publishing giant Time Inc., proposed a way to help beautify the city and help it maintain those hundreds of vacant lots: plant wildflowers and natural grasses on them.
“We’re trying to create a backdrop in which the homes will take on significance,” Blank said.
The project also will reduce the amount of maintenance required on the lots compared with the continual grass-cutting and trimming required on conventional grass-seeded lots.
Part of his inspiration was the death of Gregg Snyder, 31, last summer in a bicycle accident. Snyder was a downtown bartender and friend to the arts community.
As his friends mourned, it became clear to Blank that this group wanted to do something to remember Snyder and to help the city. The result was the formation of Gregg’s Gardens.
With the help of Sam Lamancusa, Trumbull County treasurer and director of the Trumbull County Land Bank, which has acquired title to scores of Warren’s vacant parcels and abandoned homes in recent months, activists identified Atlantic Street as the place to start Gregg’s Gardens.
“It’s on the tipping point,” Blank said of Atlantic Street, a highly traveled east-west road that runs on the north side of the Warren G. Harding High School complex and dead-ends onto Mahoning Avenue Northwest near downtown.
“It won’t take a lot more houses until it becomes a no-man’s land,” Blank said.
So far, the Gregg’s Gardens project has started work on 20 vacant lots on Atlantic Street. The project will be carried out with $27,000 in donated and grant funds and with the labor and assistance from the nonprofit Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.
Warren Municipal Court will help provide labor by offering the work of individuals sentenced to community service.
Many of the Atlantic Street lots are east of North Park Avenue near downtown, but some are closer to Harding, and one is right across the street from the high school.
Last week, Mayor Doug Franklin authorized having several Water Department workers bring a tractor to the lot, which is at the corner of Atlantic Street and Elm Road, to help break up the soil.
The lot, which is still privately owned by former Warren John F. Kennedy High School football coach Tony Napolet and his sister, will be the Gregg’s Gardens showpiece, Blank said.
Instead of planting just wildflowers and grasses, that lot will feature additional garden plants, a bench and a pathway, Blank said. It is believed that about 8,000 cars a day travel past that lot. And unlike the other Gregg’s Gardens on Atlantic Street, that lot will be attractive shortly after it is planted in the fall, Blank said.
The other lots have been sprayed with a chemical to kill the grass and weeds on them. In the fall, the wildflowers and natural grasses will be planted, but it will take a couple of years before they are maintenance-free and fully grown, said Matt Martin, director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.
Because the wildflowers and natural grasses are native to this area, their roots will be deep. Within a few years, they will choke out the weeds and grasses that might try to grow, Blank said.
If Gregg’s Gardens is successful on Atlantic Street, the project will move to other areas of the city and could lead to Warren becoming a wildflower attraction and possibly a tourist destination, Blank said.
But the project already seems to be having a positive impact on Atlantic Street, with two developers already expressing interest in rehabilitating some of the remaining houses on the street, Blank said.
If someone decided that the wildflower lot would make a good location for some other use, “that’s exactly the goal,” Blank said.
Martin, whose organization is funded by grants from the Raymond John Wean Foundation, said the wildflower lots will be a better transitional stage between demolition and re-use than the current process.
“While the vacant lots look better than what they replaced, they don’t look great,” Blank said. “They become overgrown with weeds and trash within a few weeks.”
Martin said his ultimate goal is for Warren residents, whose numbers have dropped by 20,000 in recent decades, to fit better into the city.
One of the best ways for that to happen is for existing property owners to take over vacant lots near them, Martin said. But Gregg’s Gardens should help while that transition unfolds.