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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

In rebuilding, sometimes you must demolish

In recent months, my landlord and I have become increasingly worried about the abandoned building on our corner.

The building is right next to our house and became vacant about two years ago, after a fire. Not too long ago, I walked past it and noticed shards of broken glass all over the sidewalk and wondered whether squatters were living in the building. Then I began to worry one of these squatters would build a fire to keep warm and end up burning down the entire block.

I thought I was being paranoid, but in recent weeks the building — 161 Eagle St., in Albany — has become a community concern.

Earlier this month, my neighborhood newsletter informed me the building had been vandalized or broken into four times.

“This building is becoming a serious issue within our neighborhood,” the newsletter said. “Please keep an eye out for suspicious behavior around 161 Eagle St. and report it to [Albany police].”

As an Albany resident, I wish vacant buildings would generate the same level of interest as the decade-long effort to building a convention center or aquarium downtown. Neither of those things would have much of an impact on my overall quality of life, but an effort to crackdown on neighborhood blight just might. At the very least, I might not have to worry quite as much about squatters moving into 161 Eagle St. and burning down the entire neighborhood.

Like Albany, Schenectady has an abandoned building problem. And officials seem to be taking it seriously, which is encouraging because abandoned buildings are bad for everyone. They attract vandals and drug dealers and periodically fall apart, putting people and property at risk. They bring down property values, make it harder to draw new residents and serve as an impediment to neighborhood revitalization. And their owners are often poor citizens who have failed to pay taxes and keep up with their mortgages.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer was in Schenectady, pledging to press the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to expedite the city’s application for a $3 million loan to demolish about 80 vacant buildings here. For years, Schenectady has struggled to collect taxes from delinquent property owners and maintain hundreds of vacant buildings. If used well, the HUD money should enable the city to rid itself of some of its more problematic properties and improve overall quality of life.

As revitalization strategies go, razing buildings might sound a little counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it be better to try to save these buildings?

In the vast majority cases, probably not. Rebuilding and rehabbing derelict old buildings is expensive, not to mention difficult.

And for cities that have seen their populations shrink, there are advantages to demolition. According to a recent New York Times article, bulldozing troubled blocks is “increasingly regarded as a path to salvation” by many blighted communities.

The article notes “Large-scale destruction is well known in Detroit, but it is also underway in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo and others at a total cost of more than $250 million. Officials are tearing down tens of thousands of vacant buildings, many habitable, as they seek to stimulate economic growth, reduce crime and blight and increase environmental sustainability.”
Of course, it’s important these demolition campaigns be conducted wisely. And that planners make an effort to spare buildings that might be of historic or architectural significance.

In a response to the Times article, Alan Wallach, a senior fellow at the National Housing Institute, recently wrote that demolition is not “a solution in itself. ... Vacant buildings may be an impediment to revitalization — they are — but taking them down without a clear idea of what you do next is unlikely to jump start change. Unless cities have a clear idea of what they’re going to do with the vacant land that’s being created, and how they’re going to tackle the revitalization of the neighborhoods where the demolitions are going on, they’ll simply have a lot more vacant lots on their hands.”

Schenectady is not as big as the cities mentioned in the Times article, but it faces similar challenges.
And while demolishing vacant buildings won’t solve all of Schenectady’s quality-of-life problems, it might lead to positive change. The key, as Wallach notes, is having a plan for the future.

It can be sad to see old buildings come down. But it can be even sadder, sometimes, to leave them standing.

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