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Demolition cont.


What is demolition?


Demolishing a building that has stood for many years can be a difficult, even controversial, decision. This is even more so when the building has historical value or cultural significance, or contains architectural features or craftsmanship that are rarely seen today. Demolition, however, is inevitable in many situations; thoughtfully and responsibly carried out, it can be an important part of the process by which older cities can be rebuilt and revitalized.


To many, demolition is knocking down buildings. This is a great oversimplification. A better, although longer definition is that demolition is a process that when carried out properly leads to the removal of a building in a way that protects the health of the neighbors and workers, that provides for proper disposition of the waste materials from the building, and that leaves the property ready for the most appropriate future reuse and which does not blight its surroundings.

Go to a table showing the many different elements involved in demolition.


Why is demolition needed?

A certain amount of demolition is a constant, including buildings that have become dangerous, or that are in the path of important public improvements or private development projects. In most strong markets, however, the volume of demolition is not great, and where it takes place, the cost is most often covered by developers or by homebuyers who tear down houses in order to build larger homes on the same lots. In older cities, with excess housing supply, where the presence of abandoned buildings undermines neighborhood vitality and quality of life, the picture is very different. In these cities, the public sector may have to take an active role in demolishing buildings.

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Balancing demolition and preservation

A controversial issue in many older cities is the tension between demolition and preservation of older buildings. Although the arguments for demolition summarized above are strong, it is also true that demolition can lead to the loss of historically and architecturally valuable buildings and undermine the physical texture of neighborhoods or commercial districts. This can not only have potentially destructive effects on their vitality and potential for revitalization, but can lead to the loss of valuable links to the city’s past and historic legacy. These are not insignificant considerations.

Go to a chart that shows factors to be used to evaluate whether to demolish or preserve a building.

Planners, public officials, community leaders and historic preservationists must be creative in how they think about preservation in the light of the painful realities of excess demand and ongoing harm from vacant, abandoned buildings. It may be more valuable to focus on preservation as a means of preserving vital neighborhoods, in the social and economic as well as physical sense, rather than preserving buildings as artifacts, often outside of their historic and spatial context; as historic preservation consultant Ned Kaufman writes, “the heritage ‘object’ – the core value to be protected – is the urban community as a living entity.”



Demolition should be strategic

Demolition may be needed in many urban areas. Where it is needed, it should take place in a targeted, strategic fashion. Cities and others carrying out ongoing demolition programs should use their funds cost-effectively, maximize their ability to recover costs from property owners, and integrate demolition activity with other revitalization strategies to maximize the benefit to the neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Demolition strategies should build in three elements:

  • Apply rational criteria for choosing which buildings should be demolished and which retained;
  • Link demolition targets and priorities with specific stabilization, redevelopment and reuse goals and strategies; and
  • Engage key players to ensure that decisions take all relevant considerations and perspectives into account.



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