Can We Demolish Our Way to Revitalization?

While the answer to that question in the title of this piece is obvious, there’s a strong case to be made that a lot of the buildings that make up […]

While the answer to that question in the title of this piece is obvious, there’s a strong case to be made that a lot of the buildings that make up America’s older cities may have to go, if these cities are to find a path to a new, better future. That was brought home recently by a NY Times article with the misleading title of “Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding.”

The title is misleading, because I know a lot of people in these cities, and I can’t think of a single one who actually prefers razing to rebuilding. At the same time, the article made an important point: for cities like Detroit, Cleveland or Baltimore, demolition has started to become a strategy, not an intermittent response to the individual problem building. This is a tough conclusion to reach, especially for those of us who love old buildings and admire the individual efforts that have saved many of them over the years, but an inevitable one.

Demolition has actually been going on for a long time. Detroit had 60,000 fewer housing units in 2010 than it did in 1990; these buildings didn’t just disappear, they were demolished. The problem is that, after two decades of knocking buildings down, Detroit had over 40,000 more vacant units by 2010 than they had in 1990. What the people working in America’s cities are finally realizing is that they have a basic problem of supply and demand.

It goes beyond what Justin Hollander said in the Times article, that there “just too many structures for the population we have;” the gap keeps growing larger, as populations continue to decline. The numbers in Detroit may be bigger, but almost every older city—other than booming cities like Washington, Boston or Seattle—saw the same trend between 1990 and 2010.
But, wait a minute, you say. Aren’t the cities coming back? After all, the census’ most recent estimates show a lot of cities’ population stabilizing, while we’ve all read about the Millennials who are flocking to downtown St. Louis or Center City Philadelphia.

Washington Avenue, St.Louis

Well, yes and no. There is a lot of change taking place, but it’s pretty narrow and selective. Washington Avenue and the Central West End in St. Louis are booming, but just north of Delmar Boulevard, only a few blocks away, is a different story. 

One block north of Delmar

The same is true in Cleveland, where the growth is happening in downtown or University Circle, or Detroit where it’s going on in downtown or Midtown. In city after city, the population and jobs are going into areas—downtown, the surroundings of the major universities and medical centers, and a few choice neighborhoods—that typical make up five percent or less of each city’s land area.

That leaves the rest of the city, and this is where demolition becomes important. What happens when you have little or no demand for a neighborhood’s housing stock?

Houses don’t sell when they are vacated, and become abandoned. Once a house is abandoned, it usually will cost far more than what it is worth in move-in condition to fix up. In fact, one of the real problems of many still-functioning neighborhoods in our cities is that even though some people still want to live there, house prices have fallen to where it often no longer makes economic sense to restore a vacant house that’s been stripped and needs major rehab back to use. Not too many people will spend $100,000 restoring a house that will only be worth $40,000 after it’s done, although one should be grateful that there are a few who do. 

The upshot is that there’s no good solution. A vacant, boarded house on a block is a disaster for everyone who lives anywhere around it, as study after study has shown. A few houses may be fixed up, at great cost, with NSP or other public money, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. Attempting to to ‘mothball’ houses (stabilizing them, preventing break-ins or water damage) in the hope that they will have value at some point in the future is far more expensive—not only in money but in constant attention—than demolition.

There are two catches, though, and I’m not sure to what extent some of the cities that have embraced demolition are aware of them (although Baltimore, which was featured in the Times piece certainly is). First, which properties are they demolishing? Is it simply about quantity, or are they focusing on where demolition will have the greatest impact on stabilizing blocks and furthering neighborhood revitalization efforts. Are they being sensitive to neighborhood fabric, or are they, as some cities have done, focusing on the so-called “100 worst buildings” or responding to complaints, rather than targeting their efforts?

Second, I’m worried that, like every new (or semi-new) idea, some people may come to think that it’s a solution in itself. It’s not. Vacant buildings may be an impediment to revitalization—they are—but taking them down without a clear idea of what you do next is unlikely to jump-start change. Unless cities have a clear idea of what they’re going to do with the vacant land that’s being created, and how they’re going to tackle the revitalization of the neighborhoods where the demolitions are going on, they’ll simply have a lot more vacant lots on their hands.

There’s a case to be made that vacant lots do less harm to their neighbors than vacant buildings, but that’s little comfort if the vacant lot is overgrown and strewn with garbage. Realistically, for all the same reasons that demolition is needed in the first place, most of these lots will not see new buildings on them, for many years if not forever.

Community gardens and side lots are good things, but are dwarfed by the scale of the vacant land being created in our cities. We need better ideas, and better tools, not just to use a handful of postage-stamp parcels, but to use thousands of acres of vacant land in green, environmentally sustainable ways that will be both productive and enhance people’s quality of life. 

Further reading:

A 2012 paper from the Brookings Institution, “Laying the Groundwork for Change: Demolition, Urban Strategy and Policy Reform.”


A recent EPA report on best practices in demolition, “On the Road to Reuse.”

(Photo by Stephanie Allewalt, March 2012)

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