The Vacant Building Syndrome

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

Full Story: Reports from the Edge: Vacant Building Syndrome



Pass me a violin...

This article serves as a great "feel good" pity piece for decaying urban neighborhoods, however I fear the author doesn't have much of a grip on economics or the tastes of most mainstream Americans.

Yes, forgotten neighborhoods will regenerate in cities in the middle of metro areas with a growing population and a robust real estate market. A limited segment of the middle-upper income population seeks out city living, especially in those areas with a strong h-tech/information economy and a large educated workforce.

BUT, in all those old stagnant and declining cities, where are all the people going to come from to "save" all those crime-ridden, emptying urban neighborhoods. Her platitude-ridden arguments against demolition in the "shrinking" post-industrial rust belt cities ring hollow though. Many of these devastated neighborhoods are plagued with so many more housing units than are actually needed today.

Sometimes we just have to come to terms with the fact that these neighborhoods were abandoned while economies picked up and move elsewhere. Rotting abandoned houses pose a grave danger to the poor souls who still remain in these decrepit areas. Tearing them down is unfortunately a necessity.

In my home city of Buffalo (which she so mentions in her piece), the massive amount of yuppies and hipsters it would take to "save" all the city's distressed hoods just doesn't exist. Buffalo is shrinking, weak-economy city in a stagnant suburban-dominated metro area with dirt-cheap land values. The few desirable urban neighborhoods in the city are still extremely affordable for young professionals and students. There is almost zero incentive to chance it and move into a sketichier hood that could use some TLC.

If Ms. Gratz actually spent a year living in one of these depressed neighborhoods, she might have a better understanding of the unfortunate circumstances these areas face.

To The Decaying Neighborhoods From The Suburbs

If we ever get serious about controlling global warming by enacting a national cap-and-trade or carbon tax shift, higher gasoline prices will give people a strong incentive to move from the most auto-dependent suburbs back to the old, walkable urban neighborhoods.

I may be out of touch with the "tastes of most mainstream Americans," but I would certainly prefer to move to an old-fashioned human-scale neighborhood rather than to an urban renewal megaproject.

Charles Siegel

If only...

Charles, I totally agree with you. But again, try telling this to a typical middle-class American. You'll get a glazed over look in his or her eyes with an overall puzzled facial expression. Our ambitious urbanist ideology just doesn't register with so many people who see the drive-in utopia known as America as being a god-given birthright.

Dense, walkable neighborhoods = "Does not compute" to the typical SUV-driving, cul-de-sac dwelling American.

I'm going to sit back and wait until gas hits $10/gallon. THEN we can start talking about rebuilding these forgotten neighborhoods. Perhaps when the typical American faces the tough choice of driving their oversized car OR putting food on the table, you'll get a more attentive reaction.

Yes, but...

What you say is true, Denizen, about trying to fill up old urban neighborhoods, but only a small percentage of an urban area's residents have to want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods for a region to have successful city neighborhoods.

Most Chicagoans want to live in suburban areas with drive-to everything, but the relatively small percentage--certainly less than 20%--of area residents who don't want suburban life have created amazing vitality in certain parts of the city. Parts of the city that no one wanted to live in 20 years ago are now in demand. Chicago is an economic success story now, but it does not have a flawless economy or economic history. It has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs over the past 50 years.

Places like Buffalo and Cleveland are able to attract investment despite their long travails. Reinvestment takes much longer in Cleveland, I've noticed, than in Chicago, but it does happen, and I think it could be argued that the slow change is in some ways better. Neighborhoods improve gradually but don't become completely different places overnight. Some neighborhoods where an old housing stock has been nursed back to life along with some infill are now successful places, while some of the neighborhoods that were scraped clean of their buildings are still scraped clean. I'm not saying that demolition is never a good idea, but I do think it should be approached cautiously.

It's true that many neighborhoods on the east side of Buffalo are in a wrecked state, but there are also many neighborhoods in the city that are intact, beautiful, and desirable. I would hesitate to be the first one to rehab an old house in some east side neighborhoods, but, if people had some assurances that their investment would be safe, there would be more demand than you might think. Buffalo has many successful neighborhoods with robust housing markets, and the many new downtown housing options are proving to be popular.

The economies of these older places have certainly declined over time, but there are growing sectors. I think demand for city neighborhoods is not fixed at some limited level, even in places not experiencing breakneck growth.

Rehabilitation v. "Renewal"

In addition, why do renewal programs always envision wholesale re-construction of an area (probably because that model profits the construction and development communities). A friend and I were discussing more California centric models, and of course the difference is that the land is valuable and sought after. But we are in a period, again, where some, certainly not all, of the "blighted" areas are simply unattractive. Why is so much money spent on tax breaks for renewal projects when the same amount of money can be spent directly on residents fixing up their homes and neighborhoods. Planetizen had a nice LA Times article about the city of Paramount outside of Los Angeles that successfully followed this route.

Granted Midwestern and Northeastern cities are different because of their vanishing economies, but where residents do remain and remain employed they should be seen as a valuable part of the solution.

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