Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Demolition by Neglect in Detroit

Detroit has lost another key building in its skyline to the wrecking ball, along with another opportunity for adaptive re-use, as a result of demolition by neglect.  ("Demolition by neglect" refers to the gradual deterioration of a building by a building owner who has failed to maintain it.)  Now that chunks of the Lafayette Building--an Italian Renaissance, pre-Depression era, triangular brick and limestone building in the heart of downtown--have started falling down, the Detroit Economic Development Corporation says it's time for the building to go.  Click here for a link to the article about the building that appeared originally in Detroit's Metro Times, which details the Development Corporation's position that "there was not a reason to keep it up."  The city apparently has plans to put a park in the vacant footprint of the building to make it easier to sell, even though this tactic has not worked in the past in areas where other significant public buildings have been lost.  In addition, New Urbanists might question the appropriateness (futility?) of putting a park where a major building once stood in a part of town where no one congregates. 

Today's loss to Detroit's significant historic architectural fabric could arguably have been prevented by a demolition by neglect ordinance, a form of land use regulation that increasing numbers of municipalities have started to employ or consider.  Demolition by neglect ordinances require building owners to maintain their buildings according to pre-established standards; failure to maintain can lead to fines or injunctive relief.  Rather than shift the cost of the loss to the public as opposed to the owner (such as the owner of the Lafayette Building), demolition by neglect ordinances place the cost of the loss (social, aesthetic, safety, historic, or otherwise) on the shoulders of the underlying property owner, stripping away the owner's free rider status, and ameliorating the negative costs foisted upon adjacent land owners and the public because of a building owner's failure to maintain the building.  Without such an ordinance, adjacent land owners and the public bear the cost of the loss, even though they receive no benefits associated with the building's ownership.  Detroit favors the latter approach, a lesson on externalities. 

An interesting historical note about the Lafayette Building's tenants:  The building once housed Michigan's Supreme Court, the state tax tribunal, various railroad companies, and almost three dozen retailers close to street level.

Will Cook, Charleston School of Law


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