Thursday, June 30, 2016

Can demolition of vacants add value?

The prospect of demolition just became a whole lot more likely for vacant houses sitting in highly distressed neighborhoods. To find out if this was a good thing a lot of residents and advocacy groups showed up at Edmondson High for a meeting that had been called by Baltimore's Department of Planning. The purpose, as Planning Director Tom explained, was "how do we best use the available resources to address the problem of vacants."
Demolition money: Blue: City, yellow: State, red: federal (photo: Philipsen)

Stosur projected maps of the city's neighborhood classifications rated by the market strength of area. He said there were 16,000 vacant houses and about the same number of vacant lots. On a pie chart he showed that 68% of the vacant houses sit in areas where the markets are very weak, which is eminently obvious. But poor markets are dimming the chances of these houses to survive given the logic that Planning applies. The better funded rounds of demolition are already in full swing but were ratcheted up this year with an infusion of State money.

The City had already quadrupled their annual expenditure for demolition from $2.5 million to ten million. But with the infusion coming from the State a cool $17 million will be added for demolition and stabilization in fiscal 2017 alone, $75 million in all. This comes after the Governor re-discovered blight removal as an economic development strategy, or at least as a precondition for one.
Planning Director Tom Stosur explaining the purpose
of the meeting (photo: Philipsen)

To explain the State's excitement about Baltimore deputy State Housing Secretary Ellington Churchill was at hand as well and repeated the promise that there would be $600 million of economic development money, an assertion that State legislators have long debunked.  That impressive number includes mostly funds and programs that had long been assigned already.

City Housing, State Housing, the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and the City Department of Planning are collaboratively working on figuring out how "strategic demolition" can add value. This is a good and promising work across silos. Among the tools is a Green Network Plan which is intended to tell planners whether potential additional green spaces have strategic value. After all, demolition is only one of the strategies under the Vacants to Value program of City Housing. One way or another, value must be added or the action isn't worth it.

Citizens were invited to comment on various green and demolition maps displayed on the walls of the school cafeteria. The maps looked essentially the same but had different labels. Both sets of maps showed what Baltimore Housing had already identified as their priority demo sites. There was no hint what a Green Network Plan could entail and strive for and what the prospects may be to really network fragmented demo sites.
There were a bunch of photos showing what vacant lots could look like, although those didn't represent anything that looked like a network. People were supposed to comment on their preferences.
Good attendance: where to demolish?

When I asked the Planning Director if metrics were used to make the maps on display or to define strategies for green networks or for deciding whether a house should be prioritized for over another one when it comes to demolition. He said those would be developed together with citizens and in response to the kind of input that was expected at the public meeting.

It seems that there should be metrics for all components of planning that were discussed: green spaces and economic development. Metrics should also include urban design and historic preservation. Especially the erosion of street corners with vacant lots and exposed firewalls is worrisome. The objective should be to identify which properties would have the most strategic importance as an open space versus as a rehabbed building. The economic aspects including workforce development and business development are also a matter of critical mass and scale, both important metrics. It isn't sufficient to say there is no market, so the vacant house has to come down. The question should be instead: There is no market, what scale intervention would it take to create one?
Preferences and choices: Paper and I-pads

At no point should it be forgotten that scattered vacant lots typically do not produce value. They yield little or no taxes but cost the City money for upkeep. In a City that is in it for the long haul, the question should always be: how do we attract new residents and how can we improve the quality of life of the existing ones so they don't leave as well.

Rarely makes a demo lot a good garden or park. Even an entire row of demolished houses doesn't make a good park if the open space is faced by the now exposed rears of the homes on the next street. The examples to emulate should be cities like the District of Columbia or Boston who over time filled almost all their vacants up again.

Examples could also be any of our own comeback neighborhoods where there are no more vacants. Those good examples include neighborhoods that had been on their heels like Barclay and Oliver where the scale of a carefully orchestrated intervention created a market where there was none before.

There is no reason to assume that successful arrangement of buildings, streets, alleys and parks should look different in a poor neighborhood than in a more affluent one. Demolition may be the handy fix in the short run, but when it comes to building back a city, turning those weed lots back into a vibrant neighborhood will require more creativity and resources than the rehabilitation of mothballed but stabilized buildings. Those can spring back into being good neighbors pretty quickly and give each neighborhood its distinct flavor and character.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles on this blog:

Green Network or backdoor to demolition?
Park Heights- Time to learn from failure
Why "tearing it all down" is not an option

Workforce development: Where is the Innovation Village on this list?