Written by Brad Vogel
Is the construction or renovation of a school a reason to demolish blighted, historic homes in the surrounding neighborhood? Or is the sudden influx of investment and life just the thing to tip a nearby vacant property into "worth renovating" territory?
Here in New Orleans, city officials are in the midst of a full-scale blight fight, an effort to eliminate 10,000 blighted properties in three years. The city's emphasis on "place-based development" has emerged as one of the chief strategies for directing the blight fight. Place-based strategy, as it is envisioned in New Orleans, involves focusing blight-fighting efforts in areas within a five-block radius of schools, playgrounds, parks, and major transportation corridors. To an extent, it makes sense - beautify areas close to major new investments, and the "reverse broken window" theory might take hold. The targeted area might draw more investment and become safer.
Unfortunately, the more manifestations of the policy that we see on the ground, the more we question its implementation. In fact, in many instances, the manifestations of the place-based development strategy often seem entirely contrary to wise urban strategy in a city rich with historic neighborhoods. Potentially viable historic properties continue to be brought before demolition approval committees. It seems that often the only reason some properties appear on the demolition lists is their proximity to a school, park or major transportation corridor.
While we understand that not every historic building will be saved, this current use of demolition seems to be counterproductive - the redevelopment of major public amenities and infrastructure, such as parks and schools, are often the one thing that can tip the viability of a recovering neighborhood. Translated to a single vacant house: proximity to a new school stands to make a blighted but historic home a more likely candidate for renovation because the property is suddenly more valuable and livable. Demolishing houses and leaving overgrown vacant lots is of no more value to the public safety and the neighborhood loses part of its distinct historic fabric. That's especially true given that it's more difficult to sell and attract infill construction to narrow, vacant lots in New Orleans than it is to sell even blighted houses on those same lots.
Preservationists continue to question the wisdom of hundreds of demolitions set to be funded by HUD and FEMA. Given the amount of ongoing revitalization and change underway in so many New Orleans neighborhoods, it's important to look a few years ahead when assessing the “strategic” propriety of demolition for a given property. For example, is the Craftsman house on Lafitte Street structurally sound and architecturally significant? Then remember that even though blighted and located along a strip of vacant land, it will be sited alongside a major public investment in the form of the Lafitte Greenway in a few years' time. The same goes for properties in New Orleans' Seventh Ward neighborhood, where many historic properties in the New Marigny National Register Historic District are located only a few blocks from a funded streetcar line on St. Claude Avenue that will emerge within a few years. Houses located around schools are in the same boat; if they were properly boarded and secured to avoid public safety issues, they now have a much better chance of being revitalized in a manner that reinforces the neighborhood and maximizes the public investment in those areas.
The bottom line: If many blighted properties in New Orleans can survive just a few more years in the ongoing demolition binge that touched off after Katrina, they will face an entirely different paradigm, one where renovation is more viable and logical given proximity to major planned, funded community investments. Even now, properties placed on FEMA demolition lists approximately five years ago are facing notably different situations at the neighborhood and even the block-by-block level. The context has changed, and with it, the wisdom of proceeding with demolition has receded. "The city recently resurrected a list of blighted properties that was generated under the previous administration and is seeking FEMA funding for 919 additional demolitions in 2011," said Michelle Kimball, senior advocate with the Preservation Resource Center. "We continue to uncover more and more properties on the list that are now rehabilitated and occupied, or that have had permits taken out for renovation. Many of the other properties on the list should be sold at sheriff sale, not demolished." PRC is posting maps and photos of these proposed demolition on the Preserve New Orleans blog.
Place-based development, in New Orleans, needs to reinforce the distinct architectural elements in the built environment that actually impart neighborhoods with a unique sense of place. Demolishing contributing historic houses that could be revitalized only leads to a loss of potential cultural assets, not to mention a loss of greater tax revenues, for the city. The City’s recent announcement of a $52 million mortgage program may help set a new trajectory – but only if the program is focused heavily on aiding renovations. Taking a long-term view of development reveals that the short-term strategic decisions being made today in New Orleans are sometimes at odds with the best course of action.
Brad Vogel is the Ed Majrkzak Historic Preservation Fellow in the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.