By Eric Lander:
Following 60 years of economic decline and the loss of nearly 319,00 residents the City of Buffalo is now in the unenviable position of owning thousands of vacant residential and commercial properties. The City’s housing vacancy rate has climbed from 4.4 percent in 1970 to 17.2 percent by 2010. Much of the urban landscape is now in decay and once vibrant neighborhoods are approaching extinction and others are at risk to follow suit.
The likelihood over the next couple decades of Buffalo regaining its population level of 580,000 residents in 1950 is remote. Under that premise what is the best strategy to proceed with the goal of fostering economic and population growth by reclaiming Buffalo’s distressed neighborhoods? The political solution seems to favor mass demolition. This approach is well documented in other U.S. cities where massive demolitions have failed to yield substantial private reinvestment and community revitalization. Mass demolitions result in the loss of valuable housing stock, create voids in a neighborhood’s urban fabric, further depress property values and promote continued population exodus and urban sprawl.
Buffalo’s demolition plan is aimed at razing 5,000 structures in five years. At a reported cost of $100 million the demolition plan will average $20,000 per structure. These funds could be used to rebuild rather than destroy. With the demolition of each structure the city losses a bit of its history and a link with the past is forever erased. In an era of generic urban landscapes, Buffalo possesses such remarkable assets as unique architecture, history, art and culture. These community assets create a true sense of place and if properly nurtured could serve as the building block for the stabilization and future revitalization of distressed neighborhoods. Buffalo’s architectural treasures have already yielded notable revitalization efforts in the CBD.
Alone, the City’s demolition of 5,000 structures will only further perpetuate community disinvestment, urban sprawl, population loss and neighborhood decline. Under this program as building after building has been razed the political justification has focused on alleged progress and the need for derelict buildings to come down for new ones to take their place. The flaw in this logic is that property values and rents in the impacted neighborhoods are far too low to warrant financially feasible private investment. Attracting private investment to redevelop the large inventory of vacant lots left behind will require substantial public incentives beyond the cost of demolition. Reinvestment in a significant portion of the City-owned property inventory could come at a far lower cost and yield much greater results.
What is required to resurrect Buffalo’s distressed neighborhoods is a multi-prong revitalization strategy. Demolition can be a component of the revitalization process, but by no means the cornerstone.
Promoting home ownership should be a primary goal in stabilizing and revitalizing distressed neighborhoods. Many City-owned homes are structurally sound and are worth saving. The smaller homes are ideal for first-time buyers. Investing in the existing housing stock would be far less costly that funding demolition and financial incentives necessary to spur private investment. Demolition funds could be reallocated to bring homes to inhabitable standards by funding such structural improvements as a new roof, windows and utilities. The revitalized homes would then be sold to first-time home buyers, strengthening neighborhoods, creating home owner equity, improving quality of life and enhancing the City’s tax base. Not for profit organizations have proven the worth of saving and rehabilitating homes slated for demolition.
Public sector investment is critical. Demolition should be selective and accompanied by public investment in neighborhood parks and the reconstruction of streets, sideways and public utilities. The City could team with local banks and mortgage lenders to offer mortgage financing or establish a revolving fund for City-owned properties slated for sale. These efforts would assist in stabilizing the surrounding housing stock and the rehabilitation of other City-owned properties.
The City must stem demolition through neglect by aggressively prosecuting those property owners who refuse to maintain and invest in their properties. Emergency demolitions should be avoidable and must be a last resort.
New construction should be urban in scale and design. Too much new construction has taken a suburban-style form which deflates the City’s unique urban character.
Shovel ready sites should only be created when actual market demand dictates. The demolition of properties anywhere in the City should not be permitted without a concrete redevelopment plan that includes architectural drawings, City review and approval, and financing and tenant commitments.
The depopulation of distressed neighborhoods has resulted in the deterioration of the local business community. Fostering small business will require both population and income growth. Concentrated efforts in targeted neighborhoods to rehab the housing stock, invest in public infrastructure and selected demolition are necessary steps in the eventual rebirth of both residential neighborhoods and business districts. Mass demolitions, on the other hand, will result in portions of Buffalo being transformed into urban prairies that will likely remain so for many years to come.