Menu Contact/Location

Demolition Doesn’t Work


Urban renewal saw the demolition of the U.S. Post Office Building in Downtown Pittsburgh in 1966.

A recent Wire News article out of Detroit reported how a two-story wood frame house became the 10,000th building to be demolished as part of that city’s plan to eliminate blight. Described as “another win in a years-long battle to improve Detroit neighborhoods,” the demolition was part of a 2014 task force recommendation to tear down some 40,000 structures, with another 38,000 yet to be designated for demolition.

Detroit is not alone. In January, the City of Baltimore rolled out a plan to demolish some 4,000 structures over the next four years with the aim of cleaning up blight and preparing its neighborhoods for redevelopment and investment.

We have seen this before, city leaders turning to demolition in the hopes that it would lay the groundwork for broad community reinvestment in the form of new housing. However, the record is clear that demolition hasn’t worked when considering meaningful urban renewal in our neighborhoods, our cities, and our towns. There is now almost 70 years of evidence that it doesn’t work.

Massive demolition hollows out neighborhoods and leads to a loss of neighborhood identity and building density. Once buildings that could have been restored are gone, they are lost forever. It happened here in Pittsburgh, when at the height of the same urban renewal and planning policies, the city demolished entire swaths of the North Side, Hill District, and East Liberty.

Our organization was formed in 1964 in Manchester because people were concerned that the city was losing too much. Where we joined with residents and succeeded in fighting demolition—from Liverpool Street to the Mexican War Streets, Central North Side, South Side, Downtown Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg, and other areas—we see today what has become some of the most desirable mixed-income and diverse neighborhoods in the city because of the preservation of historic buildings.

Where demolition went ahead on the North Side, the historic lower Hill District, and in East Liberty, we saw the failed public housing, shopping malls, and commercial areas that replaced what were once solidly built, architecturally rich, and culturally diverse neighborhoods filled with local businesses. Indeed, these same areas are now the focus of government and development agencies, which must spend significant public funding to create housing in spaces that have been empty for more than half a century or to demolish publicly-supported housing that replaced historic buildings.

The evidence is abundant. Demolition has not been a viable means of creating neighborhood revitalization in Pittsburgh and across the nation. In fact, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, where we have been engaged in a broad restoration initiative, we have found that empty and abandoned vacant land created by demolition has led to more tax delinquent land parcels.

Many of you might have read Paul Graham’s excellent article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s July 10 issue, “How to Make Pittsburgh a Startup Hub.” One of the key points he made was: “When cities are on the way back up, like Pittsburgh is now, developers race to tear down the old buildings. Don’t let that happen. Focus on historic preservation. Big real estate development projects are not what’s bringing the 20-somethings here. They’re the opposite of the new restaurants and cafes; they subtract personality from the city.

“The empirical evidence suggests you cannot be too strict about historic preservation. The tougher cities are about it, the better they seem to do.”

Preservation has worked for much lower economic cost and less displacement of the people. In Pittsburgh, we are fortunate to enjoy civic and political leadership that understands the significance of preservation as a means of economic and community development.

Arthur Ziegler
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633