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Big Data + Large Lots = Fast Start for City Program

As weeds go, the blooming thistles that decorate the vacant lots along the 2700 block of West Gladys Avenue aren’t so bad to look at.

East Garfield Park resident Marie Cole hopes to acquire a vacant lot on the 2700 block of West Gladys Avenue for $1.

John McCarron

Wade into the lavender-topped greenery, however, and you quickly realize why Marie Cole, who owns one of the tidy houses across the street, is intent on gaining control. There’s a crunchy mat of litter under those thistle blossoms – plastic snack bags, beer cans, yellowed newspapers and who-knows-what-else.

“My dream is to look out my front window and, instead of this, see a garden,” explained Cole, a “semi-retired” juvenile court guardian. “So now we’re incorporating our block club, dotting our ‘i’s, crossing our ‘t’s. We’re getting ready for July 1st. Can’t wait.”

That was the date that City Hall moved into the second phase of its Large Lots Program, an effort to convey hundreds, maybe even thousands, of vacant lots into the hands of community-minded block clubs and/or residents like Marie Cole.

From July 1 to August 4, homeowners in East Garfield Park can apply to purchase – for just $1 – up to two city-owned vacant lots on their block. And not just the lot next door, as was required under the city’s earlier Adjacent Neighbors program.

“The Large Lot Program will help return empty land to productive use,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in announcing the pilot phase of the program March 20. “Residents and block clubs will use the land to expand the yards around their homes, to create gardens on their block, or for beautification … or other purposes.”

Spreading the word

But nothing is simple when it comes to the identification, sale and re-use of publicly owned land in a big and complex city.

For starters, despite a smattering of press coverage and the posting of program details on the city’s website, only about 60 residents of the pilot Greater Englewood neighborhood – which included large parts of Washington Park and Woodlawn – had made inquiries in the first two weeks.

But behind the scenes LISC’s neighborhood allies were mobilizing a two-pronged outreach. One prong, led by Teamwork Englewood and the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, or R.A.G.E., did person-to-person canvassing of residents and block club leaders in areas with the most vacant lots. This was Community Organizing 101, aided by other local groups such as Imagine Englewood If … and Greater Englewood CDC.

Prong two was to match up that local organizing with an easy-to-use website that would spread the word and shorten the learning curve on how to buy a vacant lot.

The website breaks down the city program and guides applicants through the process of identifying which lots are available, determining if a resident is eligible to buy a lot, and working through the application process.

Response to the city's Large Lots program in Englewood accelerated with the development of, a website that made it easy for residents to identify available lots and apply to purchase them.

Eric Young Smith

“We wanted to deliver a simple, intuitive way for local homeowners to find eligible city-owned lots on their block,” stated Demond Drummer, the tech organizer at Teamwork Englewood and a founding member of R.A.G.E.

Drummer has been involved with Large Lots from the get-go, including two years gathering community input for Green Healthy Neighborhoods (GHN), a joint planning effort by the city and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). Formally adopted by the Chicago Plan Commission earlier this year, GHN recommends aggressive disposition of vacant lots as one way – along with new parks, urban farms and storm-water retention areas – to make “productive landscapes” out of Chicago’s surplus of vacant land.

The 13-square-mile GHN planning area, after all, has lost a jaw-dropping 63 percent of its population since 1960. When owners and tenants walk away, the city often ends up paying to demolish dangerous, tax-delinquent hulks … and owning the resulting vacant lots.

Large Lots has the potential to make a serious dent in the city’s inventory. Fortunately, LISC was ready with resources from the Boeing Corporation and the Knight Foundation – both committed to finding new ways to use data to build stronger communities. Their resources made it possible for LISC to quickly retain the civic tech firm DataMade and its founder Derek Eder, a web developer with a passion for open government. DataMade already was working with LISC on a crime-mapping tool as part of a Knight-supported project called Open Government for the Rest of Us, and had worked with Teamwork Englewood’s Drummer on various projects in the past.

“We got it done in about 15 days,” remembers Eder of the first version of “You take a complicated thing and make it simple. You know, like downloadable application forms and easy-to-browse maps with PINS (Cook County property index numbers).”

After the site went live on March 31, the pace of applications took off, with 412 applicants bidding on 549 lots by the close of the Englewood window on April 21. On that final day, more than 100 applicants lined up at City Hall to submit their applications to the Department of Planning and Development.

Web developer Derek Eder (center, glasses) shows Chicago Public Library CyberNavigators how to use the website so they can assist residents interested in purchasing vacant lots.

“For Teamwork and RAGE, outreach is something they really can do,” said Kathleen Dickhut, deputy commissioner in charge of the Large Lots program. “Their website,, I mean ‘Wow!” They had 6,500 hits in a span of 30 days, with 244 application forms downloaded.”

Better next time

Now it’s on to East Garfield Park – a much smaller target area with about 500 available residential lots compared to Greater Englewood’s 3,500. “So the question becomes,” said Dickhut, “how can we do it better than we did it last time?”

One way is to exploit more fully the tool. With LISC support, DataMade has improved the site so that Marie Cole and others will be able to apply online, without having to download and print a paper application that has to be snail-mailed or walked to City Hall.

Early indications are that the apply-on-line capability is a hit. As the East Garfield window opened July 1, the system registered 21 applications between midnight at 2:30 a.m. (It’s first-come, first-served among equally qualified bidders). By July 3, the site had attracted 1,100 unique visitors and registered 106 submitted applications.

To further promote, especially in a neighborhood where only half of households have at-home Internet, LISC has partnered with the Chicago Public Library to train part-time “CyberNavigators” who assist patrons at three local libraries: Legler, Manning and Daley.

Deputy Planning Commissioner Kathleen Dickhut and assistant Jeanne Chandler review stacks of Large Lots applications.

John McCarron

There’s a lot to learn. The improved site has online tracking that allows an applicant to check the status of their submissions as various hurdles are cleared. And there are hurdles. Applicants must prove they own property on their block, that their property taxes are current, that they don’t owe the city for traffic and/or parking tickets and so forth. is tying into those databases to smooth the process.

“The ( training was great,” said Cassandra Harlan, a CyberNavigator stationed at the Legler branch at 115 S. Pulaski Road. “I can help folks apply online, and to download or scan other documents they need, like a property deed, and attach it to their application.”

Looking ahead

LISC Chicago is thinking through ways to make the Large Lots pilot work for everyone, said Executive Director Susana Vasquez. “There’s great potential to empower community residents,” she said, “by combining good community engagement with simple and effective tech tools.”

“This is the new work of community development,” Vasquez added. “When the city has an ambitious initiative such as Large Lots, a community development organization like LISC can help neighborhood leaders and civic tech partners build participation, and then you can begin to see change.”

“There’s not an app for that,” she said. “It’s a process – a community development process.”

That process may include post-purchase challenges, too, as new owners take on garden-building, day-to-day maintenance, fencing and even property-tax payments, which are estimated at $300 to $600 per year depending on the lot’s size and location.  

Taxes aren’t seen as a big problem by Marie Cole, who at 67 spends much of her time organizing the 2700 West Gladys Block Club and attending police CAPS meetings. She figures the value of her property will go up considerably “once there’s something to see out my front window besides weeds and guys drinkin’ in the alley over there.”

A row of evergreens might do the trick, she said. Not just for beautification, she added, but, like the mayor said, “for other purposes.”  

More information: Taryn Roch, program officer, LISC Chicago, 312-422-9550; Jeanne Chandler, staff assistant, DPD, City of Chicago, 312-744-0605; or go to

Posted in Civic Tech, East Garfield Park, Englewood


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