Cross-posted from the Preservation Leadership Forum blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation where this post first appeared on October 4, 2013.

To read the full report visit the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy.

To read the full report by Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman visit the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

At the recent Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference in Philadelphia, Pa., I participated in a four-person panel discussion titled “Building on Historic Assets.” We spoke to the audience about building upon the strength of historic structures and places to help revitalize cities and communities. We advised preservationists in the room to form new partnerships with land banks, planners, and others, and to work alongside these partners on projects affecting land use. We encouraged them to educate decision makers on the importance of historic properties to regeneration plans and to take an active role in discussions around the controversial and hard-hitting realities of demolition.

A new policy focus report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy by Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman,Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, reinforces these recommendations and provides useful insights for preservationists taking an active role in discussions about vacant properties and rightsizing.

The authors look at the challenges of regenerating legacy cities–older industrial cities that have experienced sustained job and population loss over the past few decades. They identify the obstacles that stand in the way of fundamental change in the dynamics of these cities, and suggest directions by which cities can overcome those obstacles and embark on the path of regeneration. The authors look at 18 cities and track the health of each city using 15 separate indicators to measure population change, socioeconomic conditions, housing markets, and economic activity.

Here in Detroit, one of the 18 cities the authors identify, we ranked second to last in overall health and vitality, followed only by our neighbor, Flint.  But some of that is changing. Let’s look at some of their recommendations and how they can—and are—being applied to what is happening in Detroit.

Build on Existing Assets

State Savings Bank in Detroit, Mich. (1900, McKim Mead & White) | Credit: Shianne Nocerini

State Savings Bank in Detroit, Mich. (1900, McKim Mead & White) | Credit: Shianne Nocerini

Mallach and Brachman note that building upon and strengthening the assets that legacy cities already possess through strategic preservation and rehabilitation of their building stock is at the crux of revitalization. This approach helps to retain existing residents and attract new.  It is directly related to maintaining and growing a dense, walkable, and interesting city core, which the authors identify as the “low-hanging fruit of regeneration.” In Detroit, historic rehabs of key buildings continue to draw not only workers, but also new residents to our downtown. Earlier this summer, Detroit’s only McKim, Mead & White structure, the State Savings Bank (1900), was threatened with demolition by owners who wished to create a parking lot. The preservationists, residents, and urbanites that were successful in blocking the demolition understood that regeneration does not happen by building new parking structures.

Retain Existing Residents and Attract New

The authors note that while several legacy cities still contain a large number of jobs, many of those jobs are held by commuters. This is echoed in Detroit where 163,500 people work within but live outside the city as compared to only half that number who live and work in the city. In other municipalities, commuters are often priced out of city centers or wish to have more acreage and a larger living space than urban environments can provide. Detroit, however, has an abundance of neighborhoods ripe with housing stock that is centrally located and can offer these amenities. Recently, Quicken Loans and its affiliated companies purported to have brought as many as 9,000 to 10,000 jobs to Detroit. We want those people to not only work here but live here too–contributing to the tax base, voting, and helping to improve schools.

As Detroit’s workforce expands, it is critical to our success that we continue to “sustain viable neighborhoods,” a recommendation by the authors, by strengthening and building on the assets that are our historic neighborhoods. Doing so will offer good housing options for current citizens that wish to remain within the city as well as provide a range of viable options for incoming families, seniors, empty nesters, and young people alike.

Strategic Demolition

The authors address demolition in the report noting that it should be part of any repurposing strategy as long as it is undertaken strategically. In Detroit, the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) is tasked with spending $52 million on demolition using Hardest Hit Funds, a federal program meant to prevent foreseeable foreclosures. The DLBA has created a plan, which will be implemented over the next 18 months, that calls for a strategic approach to demolition that focuses this funding in six stable or transitional neighborhoods across the city with the aim to further stabilize those neighborhoods by reducing the number of “blighted” properties. Whether this focus on stable and transitional neighborhoods (rather than heavily distressed neighborhoods) is the best method, the DLBA’s plan is a strategic approach to demolition and offers a relatively transparent framework for how this money will be spent in Detroit.

Demolition is never an easy pill to swallow for those that care about and know the value buildings have in our communities, but Mallach and Brachman say that cities should not be afraid to demolish. They caution that “demolition has to be strategic, not piecemeal or driven by the ‘squeaky wheel’ principle.”

Legacy cities should develop rightsizing strategies based on their assets, needs and configuration. In Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, Mallach and Brachman provide recommendations for a strategic and incremental approach to revitalization. While Detroit still has a long way to go, movement along the lines of strategic and incremental revitalization is happening on multiple fronts here on the ground.

For more by Emilie Evans read her earlier blog post on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog, “Preservation and Rightsizing: Strategic Demolition in Detroit,”  which discusses the role of preservation in demolition discussions.