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Tool 2: Setting Demolition Priorities

Tool 2: Setting Demolition Priorities



No city where large-scale demolition is appropriate has the resources to demolish all of the buildings that may need demolition over the coming years. Cities will have to choose which properties to demolish, and how to prioritize them over time – which are urgent, and which can wait. Cities should develop priorities to guide their demolition activities. No system of priorities should be so all-encompassing or rigid to prevent individual demolitions that may be urgently needed for some reason from taking place. These should, however, be the exception, and not be so numerous that they distract local government and residents from the goals of the larger strategy.


Priorities should take into account:

  • Market and other neighborhood conditions;
  • Other activities taking place in the same area; and
  • How much the abandoned buildings are affecting the vitality and sustainability of the block and area where they are located.


Once it has been determined that demolition is the appropriate strategy, here are some principles for designing a demolition priority system.


Demolishing a single building on one block where it is the only derelict structure may have more impact with respect to resident confidence, property values and future tax revenues than demolishing ten buildings elsewhere. This suggests that in most cases priority should be given not to demolition in the most heavily abandoned and disinvested areas or demolition of the “100 worst buildings,” but to areas where removal of buildings is likely to help stabilize neighborhood conditions and property values and create potential reuse opportunities. Following this principle, specific priorities can be determined by linking demolition to neighborhood stabilization criteria and activities.


Priority for demolition in heavily disinvested areas should focus on locations where there are specific reuse potentials that can be furthered by demolition. Reuse should not be limited to development in the traditional sense, but can include any of a number of different green reuse strategies that will make the land a community asset even in the absence of market demand.


Once the city has identified those neighborhoods and areas which meet minimum threshold levels of physical and economic condition, it should develop a plan for strategic demolition in those areas. This should begin with identifying other key neighborhood features or activities: 


  • A strong social fabric, reflected in strong neighborhood or civic associations or neighborhood-level institutions;
  • Active CDC- or local developer-led stabilization or revitalization activities, preferably but not necessarily grounded in a neighborhood or target area plan;
  • Features that suggest greater market potential, such as a distinctive housing stock or location in close proximity to a strong anchor institution; and
  • A significant planned public investment in an area, such as a new school or transit station.


Demolition priorities should be connected as much as possible to other activities that are taking place either in the area as a whole, or targeted to a smaller area within a larger neighborhood. If a new school is being built in the neighborhood, for example, it may be appropriate to prioritize the blocks immediately surrounding the school, or the blocks that represent the principal pathways for children and visitors to the school. Timing is critical. In this example, the demolition should be completed before the new school opens its doors. Similar, where a city or CDC is carrying out a neighborhood stabilization program, or where private market construction or rehabilitation is starting to take place, it is important to prioritize demolition for the particular blocks where these activities are going on to the end that, when new or rehabilitated housing is being marketed, no vacant, abandoned buildings would still be standing to blight the same block face or immediate area and discourage homebuyers.


Once the key target area has been identified, to the extent possible all of the buildings in that area that cannot be reused should be demolished. If there are three derelict abandoned buildings on a block face and two are demolished, the remaining blighting property will continue to do almost as much harm as the three that previously stood there.


Because the process of setting priorities depends on understanding many different factors, including market conditions, ongoing stabilization activities, and community needs, key players both inside and outside city government need to be engaged, to ensure that decisions take all relevant considerations and perspectives into account.

Read more on engaging multiple players in demolition decisions.



►Go to Tool 3: Good Demolition Practices