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A Rust Belt dilemma: demolition or redevelopment

The City of St. Louis has some of the highest  home vacancy rates in the country, and last month the mayor of Detroit made news when he laid out ambitious plans to demolish as many as 10,000 vacant buildings by the end of his term.

With costs for maintenance and upkeep running in the tens of millions, many Rust Belt cities often find it expedient to simply demolish empty buildings in favor of vacant lots and the hope of future development.

But taking down problem properties creates a whole new set of issues which are often overlooked.

Rehabbing: realistic?

In St. Louis, the man who is perhaps most intimately familiar with the after-effects of the city’s housing crisis is Roland Comfort, Comfort is building demolition supervisor for the Land Reutilization Authority of St. Louis (LRA).  LRA is the final destination for abandoned and tax-foreclosed properties.

On a simmering 100-degree morning, Comfort makes the rounds of north St. Louis inspecting homes that have received complaints, either from residents or the city building inspector.

At one two-story brick house on Labadie Avenue the front porch has fallen off, the brick parapet is crumbling and a side wall has started to lean, and this, says Comfort, is actually not that bad.

“Look around, you could almost close your eyes and you could take down almost any building you see on some streets,” Comfort notes.

St. Louis currently holds some 10,000 abandoned properties.  And when factoring in those that are still technically under private ownership, Comfort estimates that as many as one-third of the homes in north St. Louis are empty.

The idea that developers might take a stab at rehabbing these houses just isn’t realistic for most cases.

“In a day where the actual cost of rehabbing is anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000, it doesn’t make a lot of sense on a street where the average price of occupied buildings is probably less than $40,000,” Comfort says.

He says that LRA only takes down structures that pose a threat to public safety.

Problems left after demolition

But others claim that the city is too quick to knock buildings down.  Michael Allen is the Director of the St. Louis-based Preservation Research Office

He claims as many as half the buildings demolished in St. Louis were actually sound under the city’s building code.

“[Over-demolition] is the difference between a fragile neighborhood that can be brought back and a neighborhood [that] is going to be so diminished that no developer in their right mind would be able to take it on,” says Allen.

Allen points out that financing for large-scale urban development projects isn’t as available as it once was, and knocking down existing housing stock only speeds up the process of out-migration and neglect.

“That’s the direction neighborhoods are heading,” Allen says, “when they get out the wrecking ball to deal with larger social problems—there’s still drug dealing, there’s still unemployment, there’s still poverty, there’s still poor housing.  You can take down every last building in North St. Louis and those are the underlying problems and they are going to remain.”

The cost of redevelopment

But across the country, those charged with providing city services with ever-shrinking budgets say cities simply can’t afford the hefty cost to redevelop the worst-of-the-worst urban neighborhoods.

“I would say that we’ve got a few areas in the city that are just decimated,” says Detroit Mayor David Bing.

At this this point, Bing says Detroit can’t avoid making tough choices. In practice that means shrinking the city, and channeling scarce funding into certain key areas, at the expense of neighborhoods which Bing says are beyond fixing.

“And so in those [blighted] areas you’ve got to go in and demolish,” Bing says. “There is no way that our revenue stream is going to be able to support what we had when we had a million or 2 million people.”

History, politics and demolition

Still, despite the fiscal realities many cities face, some city officials claim that demolition policies are based more on politics, than on practicality—a chance for cities to clear the land of the urban poor and open up cheap land for developers.

“What’s going to happen is, they’re going to take too many of them out…and then it just becomes land to divide up,” St. Louis Alderman Sam Moore says. Moore represents the historically black Fourth Ward, home to one of the first African American communities west of the Mississippi.

Of the 3,500 empty buildings in Moore’s ward 845, he says, are slated for demolition.

“In that 845,” Moore says, “is a lot of our history—Chuck Berry, Robert Guillaume, Dick Gregory, Tina Turner, all these people’s houses are in there.”

Moore says he’s sympathetic to residents who complain about crime associated with vacant homes and decreasing property values on otherwise stable blocks.

The response he gives them is that if he took down all the empty buildings in the Fourth Ward, there won’t be a ward left.

Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington

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