Bulldozers to clear out homes for fresh start

San Francisco Chronicle (CA), 2014-03-27


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 plan 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 of a kind 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."

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.

"Real Estate 101 says cleared land has inherently more value than land with a blighted structure on it. That would be great in a city that's normal and has conventional real estate market turnover," Maggie DeSantis , president of the Warren Conner Development Coalition and a longtime community redevelopment advocate. " Detroit , right now, is down the rabbit hole - nothing about it is normal."

The city has plenty of organizations involved in reclamation efforts. Still, Schilling said, the greatest challenge will be "connecting the dots," and real results might not be seen for a decade.