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Demolition is not always the answer

by Brian O’Neill
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, November 07, 2002

The speaker was described as “way smart” and a “truly great urbanist” in his introduction, and he came as advertised, but he didn’t say much that was new to this crowd of 150 true believers in city life.

Donovan D. Rypkema was preaching to the choir Monday afternoon in a big room in the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland-Pittsburgh Branch. Anyone coming to one of these Making Cities Work lectures, which are periodically offered by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, doesn’t need to be sold on “diversity” or “sustainability” or “community.” Rypkema offered the basics to a crowd that was more than ready for an advanced lesson.

“Think as far into the future as the age of the oldest public building still in use. . . . A city that has a rotten core is ultimately a rotten city. . . . It is the differentiated product that demands a monetary return.”

We’ve heard stuff like this before, and we believe it, and we can be even more passionate than Rypkema about the importance of preserving what’s unique about cities, this one in particular.

As a leader of sort of a civic pep rally, Rypkema was fine. As Fred Seifried of Lawrenceville said when the speech was over, “I want to know where to buy incense for this gentleman’s altar.”

But as a citizen of a city still dribbling away its populace, a city where the mayor can’t knock down vacant buildings fast enough to satisfy those who live near them, I wanted this man from Washington, D.C. to deal with this local reality: Some of our crumbling buildings weren’t any great shakes when new, and when abandoned they too often become havens for rats, crackheads and — that great oxymoron of the modern age — graffiti artists.

The major reason to preserve old neighborhoods, Rypkema says, is to provide an inventory of affordable housing. Even a city with a high-tech strategy will need child-care workers, waiters, janitors, security guards and others who won’t be able to afford the McMansions or the townhouses that developers build.

Beyond that, he says, throwing away buildings is plain wasteful. More than a quarter of everything dumped in the landfill is construction debris. Every building that goes down is like tossing away more than a million aluminum cans.

Our city may knock down more than 600 buildings this year, and Mayor Tom Murphy has his sights set on 1,000 more, but that’s hardly unique in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia plans to tear down 14,000 buildings over the next five years. Seven of our eastern communities — Braddock, Wilkinsburg, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Rankin, Wall and Wilmerding — have vacant housing rates above the national average of 9 percent. Braddock began the year with a vacancy rate of 28.5 percent, and would knock down 200 or more of its 1,600 residential structures if county money were available.

“I’d like to make it simple and it’s not,” Rykema conceded when I presented this picture. “But never in the history of the universe did a house ever sell drugs. And I defy somebody to give me an example of a neighborhood that got better tearing down more stuff.”

Rykema’s point is simple: Demolition should be a strategy of last resort, not the first choice. What it will take to save more buildings is simple enough, too: More people.

In the neighborhoods that have bounced back through redevelopment — the South Side, the Mexican War Streets, Friendship, Lawrenceville and Observatory Hill, to name a few — thousands have gotten a whole lot of house for their money. But it’s tough to continue that trend without more folks.

Pittsburgh has been largely bypassed by recent immigrants, and we don’t get enough native-born moving here either. According to a recent Duquesne University study, the region may face a shortage of as many as 125,000 workers by 2010.

If we get all the neighbors we need, we won’t be tearing down many more buildings. Meantime, there are some pretty good deals for those of us who want to live in a place that doesn’t look like everywhere else, a someplace rather than an anyplace, a place with heft and history.

Depopulation isn’t all bad.

Brian O’Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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