By Mary Freeman and Andy Levin | Detroit Free Press
Everyone is talking about demolishing buildings in Detroit. President Barack Obama pledged $100 million for such efforts in Michigan. In his State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan pledged $20 million to get started right away. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr said $500 million will be used to knock down up to 450 properties every week for years.
Everyone is in a hurry, and our situation is indeed urgent, but no one seems to be talking about how to go about this gargantuan task. In the rush to tear down buildings as fast as possible, Detroit may lose out on an opportunity to use the best policies to lift up our people and our city.
Rather than simply demolishing 70,000 or more buildings, Detroit can do something remarkable — we can put thousands of people excluded from the work force to work, protect our public health, soil and air, and make Detroit a more beautiful place. Detroit can get serious about deconstruction.
Demolition means knocking buildings down. Deconstruction means removing and reusing everything of value first, and then taking down what remains. The benefits of deconstruction are many and diverse.
Employment: For every job created by demolition, deconstruction creates several jobs in material recovery, hazardous material abatement, landscaping, warehousing and sales. These jobs are the kind we need to help Detroiters who have been excluded from opportunity in our tough economy. Training programs are already in place to help Detroiters gain the skills needed for this work, including tool use, certification under the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and hazard abatement. These jobs can pay family-sustaining wages and be organized to include more training for future opportunities.
People with all kinds of barriers to employment can deconstruct abandoned buildings — those who did not succeed in high school, who have low reading or math proficiency, who have served time in prison, or who have had substance abuse problems.
If we devoted just 30% of the $500 million in the Orr’s plan to deconstruction, we could create three years of of meaningful, well-paying work for an estimated 1,000 Detroiters.
Public health: Demolishing thousands of homes as fast as possible is a recipe for serious health problems. Many old buildings in Detroit are full of lead paint, asbestos and other toxic substances. Simply knocking them down can lead to toxic plumes and soil contamination. These outcomes are bad for people in those neighborhoods, and they challenge any notion that the land might be reused for agriculture or recreation involving children.
With deconstruction, remediation and safe removal of toxic substances can be part of the process, making public health a priority in neighborhoods already burdened with high levels of asthma and other environmental diseases.
Environment: In addition to helping avoid air and soil contamination, deconstruction takes many tons of materials out of landfills and puts them back to productive use. This has huge environmental benefits, not only from reduced stress on landfills, but also lower levels of trucking. Deconstruction both reduces the need for disposal and reuses valuable materials.
Maintaining Detroit’s beauty: Detroit has some of the best housing stock of any big city. Even many of our abandoned buildings that have been stripped still have great hardwood floors, molding and other wood features, gorgeous bricks, cool light fixtures and more. When the unemployed get work salvaging items of worth and beauty, developers of new and renovated buildings gain access to vintage products and materials.
Cost versus value While deconstruction costs more, it pays enormous dividends. It regenerates our city instead of just tearing it down. And the cost difference is greatly mitigated by the taxes paid by newly employed workers, revenues from the sale of salvaged materials, reduced landfill expenses and even tax breaks for the property owners who “donate” the material saved from their buildings.
Wayne County EDGE, the Detroit Land Bank and other local agencies have valiantly launched deconstruction pilots, but these have been limited in scope and have not been included in the mainstream of demolition funding. Now is the moment for our leaders to take stock of these efforts and put them front and center.
In many ways, the question of deconstruction versus demolition symbolizes Detroit’s larger troubles. Do we take the cheap and easy way, as has so often been done in the past, or do we do something that creates more value, that really builds the next Detroit? In this hopeful moment, with new leadership and so many Detroiters taking the initiative to create new organizations and businesses in the city, let us put our people to work gaining skills, improve public health and the environment, and keep the best of the old even as we forge aggressively ahead to a new Detroit.
Mary Freeman is director of work force development at Southwest Solutions, which has been involved in deconstruction efforts in Detroit. Andy Levin, Mary’s husband, oversaw Michigan’s work force policy from 2007 to early 2011. He is head of Levin Energy Partners, which runs Lean & Green Michigan, a program to help businesses find financing for renewable energy and efficiency projects.