ScoutMuncie: Lessons from a Legacy City Survey

By Special Contributor posted 03-31-2016 17:45


Originally Posted March 15, 2016

By Briana Grosicki

A volunteer surveyor in the field. | Photo by Briana Grosicki

1985—the year the last historic resource survey was conducted in Muncie, Indiana. Almost 30 years later, in 2014, the city received nearly $4 million in Hardest Hit Funds—a reallocation of foreclosure prevention dollars to be used only for demolition of blighted structures. The Muncie Historic Preservation and Rehabilitation Commission—of which I am the chair—recognized that some of these structures needed to be razed, but without an updated survey, we had little information to guide demolition decisions—and practicing preservation with outdated survey information was unsustainable. Muncie is a legacy city, and prolonged disinvestment coupled with deferred maintenance stemming from population and job losses have caused much of our historic building stock to lose its integrity over the years. Yet the city is teeming with older resources, as 76 percent of all structures are over 50 years old; only 3 percent of them are publicly recognized as historic. The commission needed a creative approach for updating the historic resource inventory to play an active role in demolition decisions and other blight-mitigation strategies.

A New Survey

The thought was: “If we get better at historic preservation, the city will have less blight to manage, and providing data is the best way we can help.” ScoutMuncie was created to address data challenges quickly using local talent and pooled volunteer resources. Following in the footsteps of citywide historic resource surveys like SurveyLA and Discover Denver; joined with the rapid mobile surveying success of the Detroit Historic Resource Survey (DHRS), Motor City Mapping, and the Toledo Survey; and with the goal of identifying potential local (not National Register) district designations, ScoutMuncie was born.

ScoutMuncie is a citywide rapid mobile survey created to canvass every property in the city of Muncie and gather information on property conditions, occupancy, architectural character, and sidewalks aimed at providing a detailed data set for the city. It is a collaboration among the Muncie Historic Preservation and Rehabilitation Commission; the Delaware County GIS Department; Delaware County Historical Society; The Co:Lab; Ball State University's (BSU) Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Department of Urban Planning; Building Better Neighborhoods; Preserve Greater Indy; and the Rightsizing Cities Initiative at PlaceEconomics.

Example of a vernacular house surveyed in the Thomas-Avondale neighborhood in Southside Muncie. | Photo by Briana Grosicki

ScoutMuncie kicked off with a pilot survey day in August 2015 followed by a two-week intensive survey period in October 2015. In addition to the survey itself, we built a website for advertising, volunteer sign-up, and data accessibility. The survey first targeted neighborhoods that had not been surveyed 1985, were most at risk for future demolitions, and had an active neighborhood association. Volunteer surveyors were trained by the commission prior to being sent out in groups to target neighborhoods and used their personal smart phones and an Esri Collector App platform (provided in-kind by Delaware County GIS) to conduct the survey. Numerous BSU professors, realizing the worth of this data, assigned students to help with its collection. Additionally, ScoutMuncie received a $4,400 grant from the local Ball Brothers Foundation to assist with snacks for volunteers, printing costs, data marketing, and a final symposium to discuss findings.

A Local Focus

Muncie’s building stock has suffered neglect and disinvestment through the city’s economic struggles, and has lost integrity over time. As a result, National Register status is not a reality for most of the ScoutMuncie target neighborhoods. Instead, we used systems established by the DHRS and the Rightsizing Cities Initiative at PlaceEconomics: an architectural character rating system of “landmark,” “high,” “medium,” and “low,” as well as an integrity rating system of “high,” “medium,” and “low.” When combined, these variables gave us a sense of the building stock and helped identify boundaries for potential local historic or conservation districts as well as areas for further research. To measure blight, we surveyed parcels for structures, occupancy, structure and lot conditions, sidewalk condition, and illegal dumping. ScoutMuncie omitted more detailed traditional architectural surveying techniques in favor of gathering new data points that could be used across disciplines.

By the end of 2015, data had been collected on approximately 40 percent of Muncie’s 29,000 parcels. While BSU’s historic preservation and planning studios covered a lot of ground for us, calls for volunteers to neighborhood groups went largely unanswered. When we presented our findings to Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler in January, he attributed the lack of response from neighbors not to faulty outreach efforts but to a deep history of disenfranchisement among residents—an issue the city is tackling head-on by trying to establish neighborhood associations in every neighborhood. Mayor Tyler was thrilled with the results of our survey. Of the 12,000 parcels surveyed, 81 percent contained a structure. Of those structures, 8.5 percent were unoccupied, and 11 percent were either landmark or high-character buildings. We also found that 53 percent of sidewalks were in good condition. These results went directly to inform a citywide historic preservation plan prepared by BSU’s historic preservation studio and to the Muncie Redevelopment Commission to aid in strategically acquiring vacant structures for an urban homesteading program. In early March, the findings were well received by local residents at the I.D.E.A Conference—Muncie’s first-ever neighborhood association conference.

  Map areas of marked by “high” or “landmark” character buildings in good condition. Many were found outside of existing historic districts. | Map by Briana Grosicki

Next Steps

It became clear through our initial ScoutMuncie efforts that the all-volunteer model needed to change. At Mayor Tyler’s encouragement, we wrote a proposal estimating the costs of hiring surveyors to complete the remaining 16,000+ parcels and presented it to the city administration for evaluation. In May, which is National Historic Preservation Month, we will present the new citywide preservation plan for approval by the city council. We plan to seek regular funding for our commission in the future.

While ScoutMuncie may not be a perfect product, it’s an important start for our community. With the advancements of rapid mobile surveying and the upcoming release of the CRSurveying app from the National Park Service, the number of communities using—and perfecting—rapid mobile surveys for preservation will continue to grow.

Briana Grosicki is chair of the Muncie Historic Preservation and Rehabilitation Commission and director of research for PlaceEconomics. She also serves on the board of directors for the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions and volunteers with the Preservation Rightsizing Network.

#Economics #survey #PreservationTools

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