Edward McClelland writes of the unique considerations at play in the Milwaukee’s first blight reduction efforts, which has launched as a result of the Great Recession, when the city “had more empty houses than it knew what to do with” for the first time.
But Mayor Tom Barrett’s $11.6 million plan to tear down some 500 homes will run into historic preservation issues that don’t apply in other shrinking cities: “One reason Milwaukee has been so stable is that its housing was built to last for generations. In Detroit, Cleveland, Flint and Buffalo, bungalows were built quickly and cheaply to accommodate waves of factory workers. As those neighborhoods wore out, they were abandoned for suburbia. Milwaukee’s Germans built sturdy, graceful brick two-flats.”
The city’s Neighborhood Services Department will determine which houses will be demolished, and although city code (and a $2.3 million Housing Infrastructure Preservation Fund) allows historic status as a factor in determining whether a house will be saved, the math for which houses get protected and which get destroyed is a bit of an experiment for planners says Michael R. Allen, who directs the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis: “Weighing preservation questions against public safety issues like demolition, condition of structures in very distressed or depleted neighborhoods — there’s no science to it, and I think this is really a sort of emergent area of interest for planners who may see preservationists intruding as a little bit of a nuisance, and preservationists who are learning what preservation really is, because we’re moving from ‘Thou shalt not’ to ‘maybe,’ and that’s a big leap.”