In this new column, award-winning journalist and author Roberta Brandes Gratz reports on urban development crises around the country and the opportunities they present for positive action.
"Demolition as a planning tool is back in vogue. Not since the discredited postwar urban renewal policies of the 1970s have political leaders embraced so wholeheartedly the idea of bulldozing vast tracks of vacant residential structures-and consequently, demolishing existing urban fabric, undermining local initiative, derailing organic regeneration, and displacing longtime residents and local businesses. When no productive policy exists, demolition is the easiest way to look like the problem is being addressed. The vacant building syndrome is simply planning by default.
This state of affairs comes at just the time when many older, deteriorated neighborhoods offer the best opportunity for urban regeneration and the best resource for addressing the national affordable housing crisis. This is not the 1970s, when so many cities hit bottom and the urban exodus was in full swing. The tide has clearly turned. Cities are increasingly enjoying a renewed popularity among middle- and upper-income groups. Real estate values in historic neighborhoods are accelerating beyond property owners' wildest dreams. Artists and other members of the "creative class" are seeking out abandoned or underused industrial neighborhoods. People who can afford to do so are moving into less car-dependent neighborhoods, meaning the car-free life is beginning to replace the suburban dream of the 1950s through the ‘80s. The opportunity for people with limited income to seek the same urban lifestyle, however, disappears when low-income neighborhoods are bulldozed.
Yet demolition of vacant structures is widespread. Philadelphia exhibits the problem in its most severe form, with nearly 60,000 vacant parcels (the highest per capita in the country). Small investments have been made in reclamation efforts, but the bulk of budgeted money is going for further demolition. Last fall, the city of Buffalo, New York, said it planned to tear down a record number of vacant buildings in the 2006 fiscal year, around 1,000 deteriorated properties, nearly three times higher than the average number of annual demolitions since 2002."
Thanks to John Reinhardt