10.16.12 | One of the most powerful visual legacies of the great recession and foreclosure crisis are the vacant properties left behind. The thousands of empty houses, vacant commercial buildings, and abandoned factories in older industrial cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, or Cleveland tell a story of what once was. Today in neighborhoods across the country, abandoned houses often become magnets for crime, fire, and blight. And residents who remain are concerned about further declines in already plummeting property values. Localities are finding that in addition to the lack of tax revenue, vacant and abandoned properties can also be expensive to maintain.
In places like Detroit and Cleveland, local leaders are turning to demolition as a solution to protect public safety and to destroy buildings that they feel are unlikely candidates for development. In such a weak housing market, these leaders say, repair costs would far exceed what the buildings are worth.
A new paper by the Brookings Institution’s Allan Mallach argues that this strategy, when carried out “thoughtfully and responsibly” is going to be a necessary and important part of rebuilding our industrial urban places.
According to the Census, the total number of vacant housing units in the United States grew by more than 4.5 million from 2000 to 2010, an increase of 44%. Currently, Mallach finds, there are more than 11,000 vacant lots in St. Louis, roughly 40,000 in Philadelphia, and nearly 68,000 “unimproved” vacant lots in Detroit. Mallach, who previously worked as the Director of the Department of Housing and Development in Trenton, N.J., shows how large-scale demolition can be achieved within a framework of community stabilization and revitalization.
But such strategies often draw criticism from housing advocates or local leaders, for whom wrecking balls provoke painful reminders of the urban renewal or “urban removal” policies of the post-war era, where vibrant low-income communities were wiped out completely to make room for new highways, for example.
Advocates like Michael Allen, the director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis, are concerned that knocking down existing housing stock in areas hard hit by the recession will only speed up neighborhood decline.
“[Over-demolition] is the difference between a fragile neighborhood that can be brought back and a neighborhood [that] is going to be so diminished that no developer in their right mind would be able to take it on,” Allen told American Public Media’s Marketplace earlier this year.
“That’s the direction neighborhoods are heading,” Allen said, “when they get out the wrecking ball to deal with larger social problems—there’s still drug dealing, there’s still unemployment, there’s still poverty, there’s still poor housing. You can take down every last building in North St. Louis and those are the underlying problems and they are going to remain.”
Tim Logan had a beautifully written piece at Next American City last week about the tension between preservation and demolition in St. Louis where advocates are pushing to preserve the city’s red brick architecture and historic neighborhoods. Logan talks with local officials who welcome development, but in the meantime feel like they have no choice but to tear down the plethora of vacant and dangerous buildings. Logan reports on the Ville neighborhood in North St. Louis, once a growing hub of the black middle class, that has lost 70% of the population over the three decades, by some estimates, and now is home to mostly very poor residents. (The median household income is around $16,000 a year.)
“Empties are everywhere,” Logan writes, “ranging in condition from neat board-ups to ghostly shells, their windows busted and doors ajar to dark, trash-strewn rooms. Here and there, you’ll see a building afflicted with ‘dollhouse syndrome,’ its interior walls and staircases standing naked after thieves tore away the outer walls to sell the bricks for 25 cents apiece. It all can make for a spooky effect, especially on a summer evening when there are families on the porch, kids playing in the yard and dark, crumbling vacants next door.”
There’s been a lot of attention recently (some say too much) to reuse and revival in these Rust Belt cities, and how old residents and urban pioneers are turning abandoned properties into community gardens, maker shops, and art spaces. Such urban pioneers and planners see vacancy as “opportunity” instead of just a liability.
Mallach supports these efforts. In fact I wrote about a volume he edited called “Rebuilding America’s Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland” here. But he sees demolition as an important part of this revitalization strategy as well. Mallach says communities need to carefully evaluate whether it makes sense to demolish. They also need to create strategies for how to do it, including costs, and the effects of local, state, and federal policy and regulation.
“Demolition, in short, should not be an end in itself, but rather a step in the process of creating stronger, healthier communities,” he writes.
In cities like St. Louis, the supply of buildings far exceeds demand and the number of vacant units continues to grow. And this keeps values so low that rehabilitation becomes too expensive. In addition, Mallach points out that the older housing stock in many of these cities is built for families, not the singles and young couples who are attracted to living in many urban downtowns today.
The paper includes ten action steps for policymakers and practitioners that include careful evaluation, community engagement, funding, and regulation and neighborhood stability.
But what does this mean for residents who are staying put?
Mallach quotes Frank Ford, senior vice president at Neighborhood Progress, Inc., a community group in Cleveland, who says lower-income residents there consistently rank abandoned buildings as a problem and “they want them down or rehabbed, but they don’t care which.”
Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County created a land bank recently to take charge of abandoned properties, demolish homes in the worst shape, and renovate and sell others. The bank is also splitting up single lots to give neighborhoods bigger yards, and to create parks and community gardens.
In Detroit, Mayor David Bing created the Detroit Works Project to help create a plan to deal with demolition and vacant land, much of which is being sold to private developers at auction. The mayor plans to shrink the size of the city, asking residents of lower-density neighborhoods to relocate to areas with bigger populations. The idea is to better concentrate limited city resources and infrastructure, and rebuild.
Planners in both cities are talking about creating farms, or lowlands that can hold storm waters.
But residents in all of these cities say community and history need to be taken into account too, with leadership and input from those residents who remain. There are real tensions between strategies of demolition, preservation, systematic reduction in city services, redevelopment and greening. Residents and planners will have to work closely and, as Mallach says, thoughtfully and responsibly in the months ahead.