By Alan Mallach
While the answer to that question in the title of this piece is obvious, there’s a strong case to be made that a lot of the buildings that make up America’s older cities may have to go, if these cities are to find a path to a new, better future. That was brought home recently by a NY Times article with the misleading title of “Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding.”
The title is misleading, because I know a lot of people in these cities, and I can’t think of a single one who actually prefers razing to rebuilding. At the same time, the article made an important point: for cities like Detroit, Cleveland or Baltimore, demolition has started to become a strategy, not an intermittent response to the individual problem building. This is a tough conclusion to reach, especially for those of us who love old buildings and admire the individual efforts that have saved many of them over the years, but an inevitable one.
Demolition has actually been going on for a long time. Detroit had 60,000 fewer housing units in 2010 than it did in 1990; these buildings didn’t just disappear, they were demolished. The problem is that, after two decades of knocking buildings down, Detroit had over 40,000 more vacant units by 2010 than they had in 1990. What the people working in America’s cities are finally realizing is that they have a basic problem of supply and demand.
It goes beyond what Justin Hollander said in the Times article, that there “just too many structures for the population we have;” the gap keeps growing larger, as populations continue to decline. The numbers in Detroit may be bigger, but almost every older city—other than booming cities like Washington, Boston or Seattle—saw the same trend between 1990 and 2010.
But, wait a minute, you say. Aren’t the cities coming back? After all, the census’ most recent estimates show a lot of cities’ population stabilizing, while we’ve all read about the Millennials who are flocking to downtown St. Louis or Center City Philadelphia.
Well, yes and no. There is a lot of change taking place, but it’s pretty narrow and selective. Washington Avenue and the Central West End in St. Louis are booming, but just north of Delmar Boulevard, only a few blocks away, is a different story.
The same is true in Cleveland, where the growth is happening in downtown or University Circle, or Detroit where it’s going on in downtown or Midtown. In city after city, the population and jobs are going into areas—downtown, the surroundings of the major universities and medical centers, and a few choice neighborhoods—that typical make up five percent or less of each city’s land area.
That leaves the rest of the city, and this is where demolition becomes important. What happens when you have little or no demand for a neighborhood’s housing stock?
Alan Mallach is a scholar in the fields of housing, planning and community development. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of Brookings Institution, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, and a senior fellow of the National Housing Institute. Alan is the author of many works on housing and planning and the editor of The American Assembly’s 2012 publication, Rebuilding America’s Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland.