Detroit Urged to Tear Down 40,000 Buildings

Monica Davey, New York Times, May 27, 2014

A task force convened by the Obama administration issued the most detailed study yet of blight in Detroit on Tuesday and recommended that the city spend at least $850 million to quickly tear down about 40,000 dilapidated buildings, demolish or restore tens of thousands more, and clear thousands of trash-packed lots.

It also said that the hulking remains of factories that dot Detroit, crumbling reminders of the city’s manufacturing prowess, must be salvaged or demolished, which could cost as much as $1 billion more.

If carried out, the recommendations by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force would drastically alter the face of the nation’s largest bankrupt city. They would also cost significantly more than the approximately $450 million that the city already plans to spend on blight, raising questions about the feasibility of the vast cleanup effort, which is part of its larger campaign to emerge from bankruptcy by fall and begin remaking itself.


The blight study, which is perhaps the most elaborate survey of decay conducted in any large America city, found that 30 percent of buildings, or 78,506 of them, scattered across the city’s 139 square miles, are dilapidated or heading that way. It found that 114,000 parcels–about 30 percent of the city’s total–are vacant. And it found that more than 90 percent of publicly held parcels are blighted.

All in all, the report provides a remarkably gloomy, block-by-block portrait of the hollowed-out city’s misery and a virtual record of how Detroit’s population, once 1.8 million, has fallen to fewer than half that.


Using state law as a starting point, the authors defined blighted lots in a number of ways, including properties that are no longer structurally sound, have been damaged by fires, or become neighborhood dumping grounds. Hundreds of workers spent months driving around the streets here, observing and photographing the city’s approximately 377,000 parcels and feeding that detailed information into what is now, in essence, a complete computerized census of its buildings and lots.


Kevyn D. Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, said that the city’s problem with blighted buildings had mounted since the Great Depression, despite being the subject of multiple studies by previous city administrations. The current report, which has the backing of federal, state and local officials, was finally a detailed and unified answer, Mr. Orr said. “This is an unprecedented time and an unprecedented day,” he said. “Here we are, 83 years later, with the tools to address it.”

Still, the challenges ahead are enormous. A tangle of rules can make it difficult to even secure run-down buildings so they can be torn down or fixed up. Actually demolishing a building is time consuming, too, particularly at such a scale. And while the city has plans for how to pay for about $450 million of what is needed, including some already dedicated federal funds, much of that still needs federal court approval as part of the bankruptcy process.

Another $400 million–and perhaps more for the industrial sites–could be sought later from foundations, private donors and the government, officials here said.

“This money will come,” Mr. Gilbert said.

But officials acknowledged that they currently have no particular plan for securing so much money in such a short time, particularly given all of Detroit’s other looming needs, such as improved police services and firefighting equipment.


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