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Home demolitions turn Detroit into blank canvas

Friday - 3/28/2014, 1:46am  ET

A excavator tears down a house in Detroit’s Brightmoor area Monday, March 24, 2014, in Detroit. For years, Brightmoor area residents pleaded with the city to demolish vacant homes that scavengers have stripped of wiring and plumbing and anything of value. Some structures are already gone, and now officials aim to do much more, possibly tearing down as many as 450 empty houses each week across more than 20 square miles of this bankrupt city _ a vast patchwork of rotting homes comparable to the size of Manhattan. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

JEFF KAROUB
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- The families of Detroit's Brightmoor area are delighted that the day is finally approaching when bulldozers will arrive to level more of their neighborhood. After that, their community's future will be like the cleared landscape -- a blank canvas.

For years, Brightmoor residents pleaded with the city to demolish vacant homes that scavengers had stripped of wiring and plumbing and anything of value. Some structures are already gone, and now officials aim to do much more, possibly tearing down as many as 450 empty houses each week across more than 20 square miles of this bankrupt city -- a vast patchwork of rotting homes comparable to the size of Manhattan.

The huge demolition project holds the potential to transform large parts of Detroit into an urban-redevelopment laboratory like the nation has never seen. But community leaders here and in cities that have attempted similar transformations say Detroit's best efforts could still wither from lack of money, lack of commitment or harsh economic realities.

"What's the plan for lots to keep them from becoming a different type of blight?" asked Tom Goddeeris, executive director of Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp., a nonprofit community improvement group representing a cluster of five Detroit neighborhoods.

The ambitious demolition schedule was formally presented last month as part of the city's plans to emerge from bankruptcy.

The changes could be far-reaching: Unlike other cities where building space is almost always limited, Detroit will offer urban planners a rare chance to experiment with wide-open land. Neighborhood advocates are talking excitedly about creating urban gardens, farms, forests and other types of "green space." Brightmoor already has the Lyndon Greenway, which connects two large parks with smaller parks and bike paths.

No other American city has as many abandoned properties as Detroit. But smaller-scale successes with similar green initiatives have been engineered in places such as Philadelphia and Cleveland.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philly Green program has converted roughly 10,000 vacant lots over the last two decades, making it the "gold standard," said Joe Schilling, who directs the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

Having a non-governmental organization manage and design the effort, is a huge advantage, Schilling said.

"To use a military metaphor, if you go in with your demolition forces and you're trying to get a stronghold in a particular strategic place, you have to be able to stabilize it before you keep moving on in your campaign," he said. "Otherwise, you're going to go back in ... five years and removing all the trash."

An overall "urban greening" effort for Detroit would be costly, probably requiring money from both public and private sources. Philadelphia benefited from a $250 million bond issue that included about $12 million for greening efforts.

Detroit is not in a financial position to issue bonds while in bankruptcy, Schilling said, but it could find other ways to offer an "infusion of resources."

The city proposes to tear down as many homes every week as were demolished in all of 2012 in Youngstown, Ohio, another city marred by abandoned buildings because of dwindling population and industry.

Youngstown received many accolades for the plan it launched in 2005 to retool itself into a smaller, greener city. But John Russo, co-author of "Steeltown U.S.A.," a book about Youngstown and co-founder of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, said the plan "promised much more than it delivered."

The project inflated the number of jobs it created, did "ad-hoc" demolition and "reinforced the types of economic polarization and inequalities that already existed in the area," Russo said.

"What they wound up creating were just islands in a landscape of disinvestments, blight and instability," said Russo, now a visiting professor at the Metropolitan Institute. "If you go to urban gardens three to four years after, they're vacant lots again."

He says lasting solutions "are much more complicated than urban farms and demolitions," adding that they create "a diversion from much more serious economic decisions that have been made."

Detroit's plan intentionally avoids spelling out what happens after the bulldozers leave. A spokesman for Detroit's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, said that's outside the scope of the bankruptcy case. Advocates believe those decisions are best left to neighborhoods.

That underscores Detroit's greatest challenge: Except for the city's rebounding downtown and midtown districts, most residential neighborhoods aren't attracting developers. If the vacant land had commercial potential, redevelopment would have happened long ago.

"Just clearing these properties is not going to do anything in the long run in returning Detroit to a new vibrant, wonderful city," said Robert Inman, a professor of finance, economics and public policy at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

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