They don’t build them like they used to.  It’s a sentiment expressed broadly across all kinds of segments of our society, but perhaps it is no more physically noticeable than when it comes to housing.  And let’s not stop short of applying this phrase to just the actual architecture of a single house but also the physical fabric of neighborhoods.  Factor in the ballooning number of abandoned properties in some of America’s largest cities, and we can see why many preservationists are becoming increasingly nervous.  In Detroit, Michigan rhetoric from a leading figure saying that all abandoned properties in Detroit need to come down, “not most of them, all of them,” caused the local preservation community to respond against such a statement, as impossible of a task as it may be.  A Next City writer even chimed in on the subject, declaring any task force charged with removing blight “has to be strategic about what to raze and what to preserve.”  Solving abandonment by way of the bulldozer is one necessary tool to combat blighted property’s effect on their surroundings.  But what about the potential solution of mothballing (a process of preventing abandoned structures from further physical deterioration while providing necessary security of the vacant property), or redeveloping abandoned structures fit for such a designation?

While cities are warming up the bulldozers, distinguished housing analyst Alan Mallach was quick to call out the misleading title of a New York Times article suggesting city officials actually prefer razing buildings to redevelopment.  Mallach goes on to describe abandonment and blight as a major problem in cities, but he balances the argument by looking at the possibilities of mothballing properties.  Demolitions have to be done with care and analysis, as Mallach states:

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?

In a Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program research paper Mallach dives into how large-scale demolition needs to be carried out in a strategic manner in order to achieve the best impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.  Within his recommendations is an important step utilizing a decision filter to identify if an abandoned property is fit for demolition or not.  Some of the filters are worth noting here, particularly neighborhood and building characteristics.  Neighborhood evaluations include examining the physical context, where a heavy regard for the urban design of the neighborhood is weighed against the potential loss of an abandoned building.  Closely related are emerging trends and revitalization activities where knowledge of local activities such as other neighboring redevelopment projects already underway or speculative buying trends should be identified while asking what would happen to these efforts if the abandoned property is either demolished or not demolished.  Such a decision filter is essential for any large scale demolition plan and can lead to identification of redevelopment worthy abandoned structures.

Abandoned Home in Woodbridge, Detroit, MI.  Photo by David Mieksztyn.

Abandoned Home in Woodbridge, Detroit, MI. Photo by David Mieksztyn.

When looking at recent developments in the fight against blight in Detroit, a major step towards creating the conditions for such an evaluation process has begun with one of the first acts of the newly created blight task force.  They began an interactive parcel survey of the entire city which will allow for each property to be analyzed and evaluated for demolition.  Such a database will allow for building criteria framed by Mallach’s decision filters; with self explanatory categories like the quality and character of the building, the active condition, and adjacency to other blighted structures.  The true effectiveness of the survey will be how well it is utilized by local community groups who are better judges of evaluating an individual abandoned structure’s long term potential within the larger neighborhood.  The Detroit Land Bank is operating in such a manner utilizing Neighborhood Stabilization Funds and working with local community development groups to target historic homes fit for middle class householders.  The land bank teamed up with Detroit Central Christian Community Development Corporation to identify properties fit for rehabilitation since they knew what properties fit the criteria. 

Abandoned Property Identified, Now to Finance the Mothballing

The logistics of mothballing properties for later redevelopment is a resource intense process.  A lengthy description of the mothballing process is laid out by the National Park Service related to historic preservation.  At its core is the mission to preserve the building from physical deterioration and to provide the necessary security to assure the property is not vandalized or compromised in any fashion until redevelopment is feasible. Since it is more costly to mothball or preserve a structure than to demolish it, there is little wonder why demolition is preferred, especially with the immediate results seen within the neighborhood.

The city of St. Louis, MO may have devised a funding strategy which solves the mothball funding hurdle.  In late October 2013, a bill was filed creating a building preservation fund with the goals of mothballing buildings.  The funds come from new fees associated with permits related to electrical, plumbing and mechanical projects in St. Louis.  The city is looking to leverage $500,000 per year to mothball properties.  The success of a program like this may help other cities devise similar methods to properly preserve the abandoned properties in need of keeping for the future.

The call to remove blight from inner cities is gaining a lot of steam as the way to stabilize neighborhoods, and it is certainly a good strategy when accomplished within a larger planning effort.  Now though is the time to make sure the preservationists are heard.  Now is the time communities who have planned for the redevelopment of key buildings are well equipped for the challenge of securing these properties.