There is a lot you can learn about a lot just from your computer at home. A phase of due diligence is really important to get your project started on the right foot. Things like history of the lot and your community can begin to inform design ideas, and understanding zoning requirements and other restrictions is critical for success.
Before designing a project for a vacant lot, make sure you know who the owner of the lot is. You have to have permission from the owner before starting to do work on a lot. To find the owner, you can click your lot on the Lots to Love map. Owner information will pop up on the right side of the screen.
If the lot is publicly owned (by the City of Pittsburgh, another municipality, school district or the county), you may need to go through the permission process defined by that entity. You can check out the Get Permission section to learn more about that.
Some lots are privately owned, either by an individual or an organization. The information on the Lots to Love map can tell you the name of the owner, and whether or not they have been paying taxes on the lot. However, it may take some sleuthing to find contact information for a private owner. If you’re unsure, try asking some neighbors who have been around for a while.
Sometimes, the private owner of a lot may have stopped paying their taxes on the lot. In other words, the lot is delinquent. In this case, it may be very difficult to get access to the site because the owner may have moved away or be long gone.
It’s fun, as well as useful, to look at the history of a vacant lot. Most vacant lots in Pittsburgh had a house or building sitting on them at one point in time. Who lived there? How long ago was that? Why was it torn down? How long has it been vacant? The answers to some of these questions can be found by looking at historical maps and documents.
To see the maps through the years of your lot, check out this awesome map. Notice that you can choose which year to look at in the key at the top right
To see more maps and historical imagery, check out Historic Pittsburgh, an incredible resource with thousands of photos, maps, census records, and other information.
When considering the history of your lot, don’t forget about the living resources all around you: your neighbors! There are likely many older folks who have lived through the many changes in your town or neighborhood and would be happy to share the tale with you.
Sometimes, the history of your lot can dictate what projects make sense, or at least which ones do not make sense! For example, if your lot used to be a dry cleaner or a gas station, then it is likely unsafe for food and soil quality is more likely to be of poor quality. Lots that have been recently demolished may still have some of the former foundation hidden below the surface and so on.
Local governments have zoning regulations which limit the uses of lots based on what they are adjacent to. Every lot has a zoning classification which determines how that property can be used.
Depending on the scope of your project, zoning may not stand in the way of your lot design. However, projects with permanent structures or livestock may require a variance to the zoning laws. If your lot is in the City of Pittsburgh, you can check The City’s zoning map to determine how it is zoned. For other municipalities, contact your planning department or look on their website for this information.
Often zoning information is easy to find. The next step is to contact someone in that department to understand what kind of restrictions that might put on your project or what extra steps you may need to take to make it happen.
This most often impacts things like signage and fencing.
As you begin to work on a vacant lot in your community, you may want to ask yourself what resources already exist there. Is there anyone who has already reclaimed vacant lots? What community groups exist? How are neighbors involved in the community?
If you’re unsure of what community groups are nearby, you can check out our list of organizations by clicking here. Find out what events and meetings are happening in your community and get involved if you aren’t already. A vacant lot project likely won’t flourish if it’s created without any input from others in your community.
One great way to start connecting more with the people and organizations that make your community tick is by going door-to-door with a survey. The survey is a great way to collect some data on your community, but it’s also a great conversation starter. Have a notebook ready to write down contact information, and carry some cards with you to pass out your information.