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US cities use demolition as planning
tool but results are often problematic
By Tony Favro, US Editor
7 May 2006: Between 1950 and 2000, the population of the City of Philadelphia declined by nearly 700,000, from 2.1 million to 1.4 million. People and businesses moved to the suburbs - but they didn’t take their buildings with them. In 2000, Philadelphia counted 30,000 residential and commercial properties that had been vacant 10 years or longer. Tens of thousands of other properties were optimistically labeled “short-term” vacants. Many of these buildings were health and safety hazards -- sites for rodents, vagrants, vandals, drug-related activities, and arson.
| Sprawl | Geography of poverty | History versus safety and opportunity | Money and strategy |
So when Philadelphia’s newly-elected mayor, John Street, launched an ambitious plan to demolish thousands of vacant and abandoned buildings in 2001, he was greeted with near-unanimous local approval and national acclaim. Philadelphia had joined scores of other US cities that use demolition as a primary community development tool. Detroit (951,000 residents and 36,000 vacant and abandoned buildings), Baltimore (651,000 residents and 40,000 vacant buildings), and Cleveland (478,000 residents and 30,000 vacant buildings) began mass demolitions at least ten years earlier.
Before the early-1990s, urban demolition was stigmatized. In the 1960s, federally-sponsored demolition destroyed great swaths of cities like Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. As a result, most US cities ceased all demolitions except for emergency safety reasons. But the growth of concentrated poverty in American cities, the failure of public and private ventures to bring sustainable economic growth to inner cities, the general acceptance of the “broken window” theory of policing by which nuisances such as abandoned properties must be eliminated before they incubate serious crimes, as well as the staggering volume of vacant properties helped turn popular and political attitudes in favor of large-scale demolition.
In 1996, the mayor of Buffalo, New York (population 285,000) called on the federal government to use the National Guard, which rebuilds infrastructure after emergencies like floods and hurricanes, to demolish vacant buildings in cities. In 1997, the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut (pop. 140,000) received a “Best Practices” award from the US Conference of Mayors for its aggressive demolition of 450 vacant houses.
Perhaps the most important reason for the resurgence of widespread demolition has been the ability of mayors to convince their constituents that, in place of demolished structures, new homes will rise that are better suited to modern lifestyles, yet embody the best of what was lost. For example, Philadelphia’s demolition agenda was one component of a five-year, $1.6 billion Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, a more expensive version of programs in other cities.
While demolition appears to be a quick and cost-effective way to remove blighted properties and their associated problems, as well as provide opportunities for revitalization, its effectiveness as an urban redevelopment tool can be problematic.
In 1994, the City of Rochester, New York (pop. 220,000) identified 1700 vacant and abandoned single-family homes. The city announced a plan to purchase and eliminate all the vacants within five years. Structurally unsound houses would be demolished and replaced by new homes. The balance of the vacants would be rehabilitated.
Over the next ten years, 1800 vacant structures were demolished, 450 new homes were constructed, and 2300 vacant houses were reoccupied -- yet the city still counted over 2000 vacant single-family homes, prompting the new mayor to launch a more vigorous demolition effort.
Despite the best efforts of city officials, people continued to leave the city for the suburbs. Rochester’s population declined an estimated 5 per cent between 1994 and 2004. The unabated property abandonment caused by the outward migration outpaced the city’s efforts to contain and eliminate vacant buildings. Detroit, Milwaukee (pop. 597,000), Cleveland, New Haven (pop. 124,000), Flint (pop. 125,000), and many other cities note both increased demolition and increased abandonment. In older cities throughout the United States, suburban sprawl almost guarantees that the number of vacant properties will increase over time.
Geography of poverty
In 2005, Jacksonville, Florida (pop. 736,000) celebrated the construction of the 100th new home built on a vacant city lot by Habitat for Humanity. Habitat is a national nonprofit developer of subsidized (affordable) housing for low-income buyers. In the rough neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, all new homes are highly-subsidized and use substantial state funding specific to nonprofit development. All of the 450 new homes built by the City of Rochester to replace demolished houses were affordable units.
In cities throughout the US, the vast majority of demolitions occur in so-called “inner city” neighborhoods where 40 per cent or more residents live below the federal poverty level. For-profit developers rarely come into these devastated areas. New residential construction is almost always subsidized, below-market-rate housing.
In other words, a resident may get a new government-subsidized home, but the surrounding inner city neighborhood remains unchanged. Underperforming schools, limited access to jobs, and high crime continue to trap the new homeowner in a geography of poverty. Moreover, a new subsidized home in a rundown neighborhood rarely adds to the owner’s wealth since it is unlikely to appreciate in value or sell for much more than the low assessed value of the surrounding, deteriorated properties.
Often, inner city areas cannot attract even subsidized development. The City of Baltimore owns 14,000 vacant lots where dilapidated houses were demolished and new investors haven’t materialized. Vast tracts of Detroit where buildings were razed decades ago have gone back to nature, attracting wild animals.
History versus safety and opportunity
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the United States’ most powerful preservation group, shocked preservationists in 2005 when it supported the demolition of the historic Century Building in St. Louis to make way for a parking garage. The new parking garage was a demand of a private developer that wanted to restore the adjacent historic Post Office building.
Such compromises are common in downtowns and urban neighborhoods that were marginal ten years ago, but are now resurgent as artists, young people, and retirees rediscover their history, architecture, and convenience.
But historic preservation, even limited in scope, is seldom a priority in inner city neighborhoods where poverty is extreme. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 300,000 buildings are demolished each year in US, most in rough, inner city neighborhoods. Irreplaceable architecture styles -- bungalows, four-squares, shotgun houses, row houses, and other uniquely American buildings -- are being lost. For example, Baltimore demolished over 4000 nineteenth century row houses between 1996 and 1999, all in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Demolitions in the poorest neighborhoods usually proceed with strong public support. Arguments that demolition is necessary to safeguard the public, protect current investments, and provide development opportunities generally trump concerns about historic preservation. However, preservationists can point to notable victories.
When several streets in Philadelphia‘s Parkside neighborhood were on the demolition list, one man lobbied for the entire neighborhood’s designation as a National Historic District and slowly rehabilitated house after derelict house. Today, other developers now see the area’s potential and are beginning to make investments.
The City of Albany, New York (pop. 96,000) is working with private and nonprofit groups on an early-warning system to identify and stabilize historic properties before they require emergency demolition.
Too often in America’s poorest neighborhoods, where the market doesn’t provide adequate returns for residents or outside investors, the attitude of owners of historic properties is “If you won’t let me tear it down, I’ll let it fall down.” Washington, D.C., as well as several cities in California, makes the willful neglect of historic structures a crime.
Preservationists aren’t silent in America’s poorest neighborhoods, but their long-term concerns are overwhelmed by immediate needs and financial constraints.
Money and strategy
As renovation costs increased, cities turned to demolition as a more economical way of removing deteriorated housing, particularly in poor neighborhoods where renovation costs frequently exceed the market value of the improved property.
For most American cities, demolition is part of a larger revitalization strategy that includes land acquisition, land banking, rehabilitation, and new construction -- all of which are expensive to sustain on a large scale. Each city implements its strategy in its own way.
Philadelphia, for example, customizes its revitalization strategies to the needs of individual neighborhoods. In some neighborhoods, the city invests in a complete revitalization; others receive more limited attention. Providence, Rhode Island (pop. 174,000) targets efforts to reveal the development potential of a few marginal neighborhoods, and hopes that new development will spill over into adjacent tougher neighborhoods (before the problems of the tougher neighborhoods spread to the marginal neighborhoods). Rochester, on the other hand, is contemplating a massive redevelopment focus on the highest poverty areas of the city.
The reality of urban revitalization in America is that the only thing stopping people from moving to a neighborhood, or developers from building in a neighborhood, is their perception of the place. While cities may be able to knock down a lot of buildings relatively cheaply, they cannot afford to simultaneously fix the underlying problems in every neighborhood: employment, economic development, health, public safety, schools, and racism -- all must be addressed. Absent such reforms, market-rate developers are unlikely to take risks.
As a result, for most American cities, sustainable development in high poverty, inner city neighborhoods will prove elusive, and demolition -- expedient and economical -- will remain an important urban planning tool for the foreseeable future.
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