Demolition Mantra

This is a quote from March 20, 2010 concerning a broadened effort to address downtown issues through demolition  (here):

It’s a serious problem and the city is not doing enough, bottom line,” said Baia.

As part of his East End report, Baia has proposed an expansion of the city’s demolition effort, which is a collaboration with Montgomery County and currently in use during the winter months in the off-season for county workers who normally do road work. Baia has proposed the implementation of a year-round three-member demolition crew that shares county and city resources, employees and funds.

We can do whatever bonding necessary to get the funds up to do it,” said Baia. “We’d be up to date in a year.”

Sounds familiar (from here) :

Old buildings which have outlived their usefulness and are not providing tax revenue for the city should be razed. Prospective industries are looking for modern facilities and old, useless structures should be razed to make way for them.

The local businessman said political powers have virtually done nothing over the past 20 years to cope with the situation. Efforts have been basically ineffective and now a dynamic effort is needed to reverse the trend.

The reason it all sounds so familiar is they are basically advocating the same thing– demolition as the road to progress. If you’re on board with that line of thinking, I’d encourage you to click through the link on the latter quote and look at the publish date on the top of the page. [Dramatic pause ………………………….]
So there you have it: the same strategy outlined in August of 1960 reincarnated for 2010. Really?!
Demolition is precisely the wrong strategy; it should only be used to deal with public safety issues as a last resort not as an economic development engine. Let me offer a few observations to support my thinking here:
— Demolition has no endpoint. How much demolition needs to occur until things ‘turn around’? If you cannot define an endpoint, it means that demolition must be sustained for how many years, or more likely, decades.
–Demolition consumes public money to create a parking lot. I see a lot of parking lots with their own blight issues yet have yet to see any new build or revival around demolished areas. If the parking lot strategy is so effective, why has it not worked until now? Keep in mind that we just had a real estate bubble so if any time was going to bring revival around our parking lot strategy, it would have been at the peak. Yet nothing happened. Curious.
–We are going to bond, or put another way, increase public spending and by definition the tax rate, by pursuing demolition. As demolition removes property from the tax rolls and removes housing from neighborhoods, we see a weakening of neighborhoods and incentives to move into neighborhoods. That means lowering property values which means raising the effective property tax rate even higher; and the cycle continues.
Let me put forward a different proposition that actually encourages growth and revival:
— Create a bond fund called the Neighborhood Fund with $300K of moneys
— Create a limit of  roughly 15% of funds ($50K) to be used for demolition
–Target 5 of the most distressed neighborhoods (no larger than one city block) and grant each neighborhood $30K (this leaves $100K, I’ll explain later)
–Each neighborhood is managed through a committee of 7 members of the neighborhood. No committee may comprise any currently elected or formerly elected official from the last 5 years. Committees only admit owner occupied landlord and homeowners. A committee serves for one year.
–Each neighborhood committee with help from local economic development, local historians, local architects, etc (let’s loosely call it an advisory board serving all neighborhoods) develops a plan to spend their $30K. Committees have 60 days to develop a neighborhood plan.The neighborhood plan must address at least one city owned property and must not allocated more than 10% to general neighborhood improvement. In other words, the committee could spend up to $3K on general projects such as landscape for everyone on the block.
–Each neighborhood plan is subject to review and approval by a committee of advisors (advisors on the review committee include current alderperson and supervisor of respective ward) for spending. This is an audit activity to assure no self-serving.
–Each neighborhood plan must be executed within 90 days.At the end of 90 days, the advisory committes+the neighborhood committees+the audit committees grade each neighborhood in terms of their improvement. The top 3 committees receive an additional $10K each for Year two (leaves $70K). The bottom two committees receive no Year 2 funding
–In Year 2, two more distressed areas are targeted each receiving $35K subject to same process as above. The program ends at the end of Year 2
Here are the basic drivers of my program:
1) Immediate visible success builds momentum compared to down the road success
2) Blending public plus private incentives increases buyin
3) Creating demand drivers — nicer neighborhoods– is essential compared to supply-side only efforts
4) A merit based approach encourages competition for funding and aligns incentives between public and private
5) Drive benefits to homeowners and residents
6) Build a sustainable tax base versus tearing it down
7) Preserve rather than destroy

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