Recently, I published an essay on CityLab criticizing the current St. Louis mayoral administration for embracing private funding of demolition – more subtraction – in north city while encouraging investment downtown – more addition.
Some respondents contacted me to ask whether I actually thought the 30 houses that the city and businessmen Jack Dorsey and Bill Pulte have wrecked in Wells-Goodfellow should have been saved. Surely I could not believe that these decrepit houses should stand in their current state indefinitely. If private money could help the city with the matter, all the better, right?
The problem that I wrote about is that the simple faith in demolition as a neighborhood stabilization strategy mistakes a tactic for a strategy.
Tactics implement strategies. If the city’s goal is to improve north St. Louis neighborhoods as places to live, demolition must be only a tactic. The strategy needs to be increasing the health, wealth and safety of current residents and attracting new residents.
St. Louis has bulldozed a lot of vacant buildings since the 1960s, and the city is none the better where the bulldozer was used most liberally. In fact, the city’s overall population is lower today than it was in 1870.
So, about those 30 houses and that private money – maybe what I should have written is, “so what?” As in, what does this accomplish? And how do we know that it has accomplished that?
Fundamentally, the city needs big goals around building demolition. Reduction of vacant buildings in and of itself constitutes bureaucratic risk reduction – and a self-fulfilling goal. If the goal is to demolish a number of houses, it is fulfilled by doing that work.
Instead of setting demolition as a goal, the city should utilize demolition as a means toward other goals that have clear assessment measurements. No one should ask City Hall to do miracle work, such as suspending demolition until it has solved poverty and crime.
Yet City Hall can set goals for neighborhoods where demolition can be constantly evaluated as a strategy for neighborhood improvement. One big goal of using the bulldozer should be stemming population loss, so an easy annual measurement of population recorded by the American Community Survey should be instructive. If the demolitions in a neighborhood are not combatting population loss, then they could be contributing to it.
Another goal should be increased wealth for owner-occupants. A simple measurement of assessed real property values annually will tell if demolition is achieving real security for homeowners in neighborhoods. Demolition that contributes to continued loss of value should be ceased, because data will be showing that it actually is detrimental to stabilization.
Crime ought to be a major consideration, and from the discussion of demolition over the last few decades, it seems to be. Yet whether tearing down vacant houses makes neighborhoods safer is debatable. Vacancy and crime are coefficient, but there needs to be proof that demolition of vacant buildings is not simply another causal or at best neutral coefficient. If crime rises where houses are falling, demolition is not the answer. And so on.
Forward Through Ferguson already charted the region’s goals on racial and class equity in “The Ferguson Commission Report,” and they all intersect with neighborhood wellness. According to the STL2039 report from Forward Through Ferguson, last year St. Louis scored a 2.54 out of 5 in successful implementation of the report – right in the middle.
The use of demolition seems to fall right in the middle, too. Perhaps we are taking down some bad buildings past salvation, but there seems to be a missing effort to ensure that demolition is doing something for people.
What’s missing is knowing why we are doing all of this demolition, and how we will know when we have achieved it.
Michael R. Allen is Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at Washington University in St. Louis.