Boarding up vacant buildings is supposed to make them more secure. But in reality, plywood-covered windows and doors just make empty buildings more obvious and neighborhoods uglier.



Chris Toepfer thinks there’s a better way.



Toepfer, an artist from Chicago, has devised a system for boarding up buildings using decorative panels that disguise their true purpose. He was in Akron this week, putting a cheerier face on parts of the city’s east side.



Toepfer is executive director of the Neighborhood Foundation (www.tnfamerica.com), a nonprofit that does decorative board-ups around the country. He was hired by East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp. to work his magic on a couple of abandoned houses on Roselawn Avenue and two commercial buildings on South Arlington Street.



Toepfer and three local laborers covered openings on the houses with panels painted to look like doors and windows, and also trimmed the overgrown landscaping. They got even more ambitious on the commercial buildings, decorating the panels with motifs such as puffy clouds and faux stained glass.



Their efforts pleased Wayne Pim, who lives across the street from one of the houses.



“That looks really nice,” he called to Toepfer as he passed by. “Makes it look a lot better.”



The panels may not look like real doors and windows on close inspection, but the point is to make them less obvious from the street, Toepfer said. A potential thief or squatter probably won’t notice that what look like windows are really just painted boards with wood strips nailed to them or faux transoms painted on top.



Decorative board-ups do more than just secure buildings and make them prettier, Toepfer said. They also help stem neighborhood decline and make buildings more attractive to potential buyers, so the structures won’t end up being torn down.



When vacant buildings are razed, he said, “you’re destroying a lot of good housing stock, and you’re not doing much to revitalize neighborhoods.” Usually all you end up with is vacant lots, he said.



The panels Toepfer uses are made of a water-resistant material called ReWall, made from recycled beverage cartons and cups. If the existing windows or doors are salvageable, the panels are attached using metal straps that won’t do permanent damage.



The houses that were boarded up were chosen largely because their owners could be identified, said Kyle Julien, director of urban planning at East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp. He said the commercial buildings were selected because EANDC is working to spruce up Arlington Street and make it function better for the neighborhood.



Toepfer will return to board up more Akron buildings in June, Julien said. He declined to identify the buildings because the organization hasn’t finished the process of obtaining permission.



The work is being funded by a $25,000 grant from NeighborWorks America, an organization that provides support to community development agencies including EANDC.



Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.