Razing and Rebuilding Returns To US, the Family-Friendly Way

A few years ago, the neighborhood around 44th and Market Streets in West Philadelphia was a disaster. In home after home, windows were boarded up, roofs and shutters were falling down, and porches were strewn with trash and rubble.

Today, that same three-block area is a neighborhood transformed. Inside the new gated enclave, three-bedroom brick town houses boast patios overlooking grassy backyards.

What's at work here is a new kind of urban renewal. Faced with the prohibitively high costs of renovating abandoned homes, which often become havens for crime, cities from Buffalo, N.Y., to St. Louis have simply leveled entire city blocks and rebuilt. In the place of old, chockablock row houses are new, more-spacious developments that bring a sense of suburbia to the inner city.

Although some urban planners have warned against being too hasty in destroying neighborhoods, the projects are seen as part of a "real transformation of public housing across the country," says Dennis Culhane, a professor of social-welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Family-friendly construction

Developments like the one along Market Street - and a similar one that opened this month in North Philadelphia - are far removed from the urban renewal of the 1960s and '70s. Instead of constructing the kind of mammoth, cinder-block public-housing projects that were in vogue 30 years ago, the programs here are based on a more family-friendly model - with slanted rooftops, larger rooms, and more green space.

In many ways, that's what Buffalo is also aiming for as it builds 300 homes in the city. The city demolishes about 500 of its 10,000 abandoned homes each year, many of which are old factory houses with small rooms and no basements.

They are "beyond obsolete," says Robert Sienkiewicz, director of the Mayor's Task Force on Housing.

As in Philadelphia - where more than 26,000 buildings are abandoned - the cost of repair is high. Vandals have ransacked the buildings, and the homes were poorly constructed to start with. So, like Philadelphia, Buffalo is starting from scratch, building "primarily single-family homes with a little more space," says Mr. Sienkiewicz.

One reason cities can raze old housing and build new, more-spacious developments is that America's urban population has decreased by 5 million during the past 50 years. That gives cities more room to breathe, says Professor Culhane, letting them stretch their developments with more land and larger homes.

For example, Chicago is razing its two largest public-housing projects, the Robert Taylor homes and Cabrini Green, and replacing the behemoths with single-family homes.

Rather than rebuilding, cities have sometimes simply sold the empty lots to community groups or homeowners, so they can be used as public spaces or gardens.

Renovation vs. demolition

Yet Culhane and others say they would like to see more effort put into reclaiming abandoned properties before the blocks become blighted and have to be replaced.

"New housing units run between $90,000 and $110,000," he explains. "A gutted rehab costs about $110,000. But there are many houses in some of these neighborhoods that have a market value of $20,000 or $30,000, and can be repaired with another $10,000 or $15,000 of work."

But, Culhane says, rehabs must occur quickly, before the home falls prey to vandals or the elements. He is working with Philadelphia's Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a strategy for identifying homes at risk of abandonment so the properties can be saved.

Buffalo and St. Louis already have such strategies in place. Buffalo uses what Sienkiewicz calls a "triage strategy" to locate and repair abandoned homes in neighborhoods where most of the homes are still inhabited.

St. Louis's plan includes low-interest loans for home repairs, code-enforcement programs to address minor issues, and public-nuisance ordinances that help remove destructive tenants. Still, the city has demolished more than 1,200 buildings in the past three years. And on Nov. 3, it is hoping to pass a bond issue, allocating $11 million for building demolition.

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