Demolition is Not Enough: Design After Decline Author Brent Ryan on Redevelopment in Philadelphia

In this guest blog post, Design After Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities author Brent D. Ryan asks Philadelphia to consider its demolition patterns and rowhouse legacy.

Demolition Is Not Enough
Distressed cities like Philadelphia need a future vision that is more than just less

Design After DeclineThe first decade of the twenty-first century brought a rebirth of sorts to Philadelphia. Real estate markets boomed, housing construction flourished, and confidence in the city rebounded. The city’s population even increased slightly from 2000 to 2010, reversing decades of decline. And the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), a demolition scheme that former Mayor John F. Street made the key policy initiative of his administration, removed 8,000 vacant, dilapidated houses from Philadelphia neighborhoods. At least until the 2007-08 housing crash, the city’s future looked brighter than it had for decades.

Today, the future in many Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is far less certain. Lots cleared by NTI continue to sit vacant, with no conceivable reuse in sight. City government faces the repayment of $250 million in debt that NTI incurred. And almost three-fourths of Philadelphia neighborhoods have housing values lower than construction costs–meaning that market-rate construction is unlikely to occur there. With Mayor Michael Nutter beginning his second term, real estate at a slowdown, and a new comprehensive plan for the city (Philadelphia2035) recently completed, the timing is right to reassess the redevelopment strategies for Philadelphia’s troubled neighborhoods.

But where should such a reassessment begin? Even after NTI, thousands of rowhouses remain vacant- up to 25,000 at last count. Is more costly demolition the answer? Let me make an alternative proposition: demolition financing should not be the focus, because Philadelphia needs new construction, not new destruction, no matter what the numbers of vacant housing are in its troubled neighborhoods.

Let us first consider the disadvantages of recent demolition efforts. Under NTI, vacant rowhouses in six ‘acquisition zones’ were demolished, at an average cost of $23,000 per house, if their condition was sufficiently deteriorated. The result was scattered demolition in troubled neighborhoods. But demolishing one rowhouse leaves adjacent ones, often inhabited, intact. And since Philadelphia blocks historically contained up to 80 rowhouses, even aggressive demolition has done little more than generate scattered vacant parcels amidst equally scattered remaining rowhouses–the well-known ‘missing teeth ‘ phenomenon.

What can occur where a vacant rowhouse once stood? In many cities, vacant parcels adjacent to inhabited houses can be annexed for uses like additional parking, gardens, or even a swimming pool–a process that Interboro Partners, a design and planning firm in New York City, has termed ‘blotting’. But blotting is difficult in Philadelphia. Renovating a rowhouse to open into an adjoining vacant lot is expensive because side party walls carry much of the house’s weight. And the space left by the average vacant rowhouse is barely wide enough to park a car, never mind a swimming pool. Private or community gardens can pick up some of the slack. But in neighborhoods with thirty or forty vacant lots, there may not be enough community gardeners for every empty lot. In many Philadelphia neighborhoods, in other words, a vacant lot is a white elephant: expensive to create, difficult to reuse. Barring a miraculous rebirth of neighborhood real estate markets, city officials should think twice before creating more vacant lots.

Philadelphia rowhouses are an equally big problem. Except for small households with few or no children to worry about, the average rowhouse is inadequate housing for contemporary life. Occasional rowhouse mansions such as those on Delancey Street should not blind us to the reality that most Philadelphia rowhouses are cramped, with minimal outdoor space, little privacy or security, and no space for the family car. Rowhouses, in other words, fail to provide any of the contemporary housing amenities that most Americans expect. In neighborhoods with aspirational residents and many children, the rowhouse, sad to say, has little future except for those who have no choice. The city’s current built environment is hardly optimal for most Philadelphia residents.

A solution is less difficultand expensivethan one might think. In distressed neighborhoods, Philadelphia rowhouses in disrepair and lacking contemporary amenities need to go, but they need to go in quantities large enough for significant numbers of new housing to be built in their place. This is hardly a radical notion. In the 1950s and 1960s city government cleared and rebuilt many neighobrhoods. While ‘urban renewal’ is criticized for brutal displacement and demolitions, this was less so in Philadelphia, where both demolition and rebuilding were sensitive. Urban renewal districts like Yorktown, in North Philadelphia, are among the best of the era constructed anywhere. More recently, the Rendell and Street administrations, working with creative neighborhood development corporations, generated equally successful new neighborhoods in Lower and East North Philadelphia.

Constructing a new city neighborhood is not a challenge to be taken lightly. Existing residents, often in substandard housing, should not be involuntarily displaced, but provided the option of a new house or relocation funding. Evidence indicates that many if not most will be pleased with the choice. Good architectural and urban design is fundamental- new housing must improve upon the historic rowhouse by providing residents with privacy, security, and most of all, an active, diverse urban environment, not a suburban tract with a city address. Lastly, effective land acquisition and property management is essential. Philadelphia’s parcel pattern, created for thousands of tiny rowhouses, is a heavy legacy. Ownership is scattered, and often difficult to track. Legal reforms may make reuse of vacant parcels easier in time, but until then, the city must take the challenge of assembling land head-on.

Building new neighborhoods in Philadelphia’s troubled areas is not an option but a necessity. If low- and moderate- income Philadelphians are to remain in the city rather than leaving at first chance, they must have the option of attractive, desirable places to live. And if the city wishes to retain population, it must commit to garnering the scarce public funds to construct quantities of new housing. Hardest of all, policymakers must steel themselves to concentrate resources rather than scattering them to every outstretched hand. Philadelphia has an impressive design, planning, and redevelopment legacy. Perhaps the city stands at the edge of another era of innovation. Only time will tell.

For additional reading:

The Image Is The Power (2012), a MIT master’s thesis by Jonah Stern, examines NTI in detail.
Fixing Broken Cities
by John Kromer gives a policy perspective on Philadelphia’s revitalization struggles.
The Penn Institute for Urban Research  publishes research and reports on Philadelphia.
Plan Philly

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Brent D. Ryan is an urban planner who teaches urban design and public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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