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Milwaukee officials considering pausing deconstruction policy until 2020

Milwaukee could pause its enforcement of a mandate requiring contractors to deconstruct, rather than demolish, historic homes after a assessment of the policy found that it struggled to get off the ground in 2018.

The city’s deconstruction policy, which was passed unanimously in 2017, requires property owners to take apart, not tear down, homes that have been designated as historic or were built before 1930. But after a year, a review of the policy found that contractors have struggled to adapt to the new rules, that public bids have come in incomplete or in excess of initial estimates and that the number of condemned buildings in the city has risen.

Now, a Milwaukee Common Council commission plans at a meeting next week to consider putting the enforcement of the policy on hold until Jan. 1., 2020. The proposal follows on a veto attempt made by Mayor Tom Barrett during budget deliberations last fall. Alderman Russell Stamper, one of the local officials calling for the policy to be put on hold, did not immediately return a request for comment by press time.

For Kathryn Thoman, senior vice president of the Kenosha company Recyclean, one of the few contractors to perform deconstructions last year, the proposed delay is likely to be counter-productive. She said city officials have already shown not enough of a commitment to the deconstruction policy.

“The city has failed to follow through on a lot of things such as certain education classes and licensure,” Thoman said. “We had talked about developing a curriculum. I’m happy to help them but the thing is, they don’t ask.

“They need to hang tough and follow through,” she said.

The city’s deconstruction policy applies to most homes that were built before 1930, as well those that have been designated as being historic or that stand in a historic district. About 43 percent of the city’s housing stock was built before 1930. By deconstructing homes, contractors salvage and re-sell components of old homes, avoiding composting fees.

The ordinance, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2018, contains penalties for property owners who don’t comply. Violations can lead to thousands dollars worth of fines, and contractors can risk losing a spot on the city’s list of certified deconstruction contractors. Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services can also issue stop-work orders or conduct site inspections.

Thoman said Recyclean performs deconstruction projects throughout the country, including in Chicago, which has its own successful deconstruction ordinance. The company, she said, was well equipped to perform deconstruction work when the city’s ordinance took effect. It even performed the first deconstruction project under the new ordinance: a take-down of two residential properties on North Cambridge Avenue.

“You can’t tell me this doesn’t work,” she said. “You cant’ tell me this is impossible.”

Although not without its critics, the policy did manage to overcome a veto attempt by Mayor Tom Barrett during budget deliberations last fall. Barrett argued that the policy had increased the cost of demolishing old homes and said he did not want to see $1.5 million put aside by a budget amendment into the city’s blight-elimination coffers going to support the deconstruction program. His veto was eventually overridden by a 12-3 vote by the Milwaukee Common Council.

A city report on the program’s performance, meanwhile, shows that it has struggled to do as well as promised in its first year.

The number of condemned buildings increased under the city’s deconstruction policy, going from 384 in December of 2017, to 520 at the end of 2018. Contractors are meanwhile wary of taking part in the deconstruction policy and of spending money on the sort of training needed to perform such work.

Bill Cook, owner of the Milwaukee company Braxton Environmental, said deconstruction requirements had led the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services to stop contracting for asbestos-abatement work, which cost his business a city contract. As a result, he said he “had no choice,” but to lay off several workers.

Re-training employees for deconstruction is onerous, making it unlikely he’ll be able to compete for such contracts, he said.

“I haven’t seen any opportunity for my company,” Cook said. “The opportunity that I had, we lost that.”

At least two demolition contractors have also laid off workers in response to the recent sudden drop in public and private demolition work, according to the city’s report.

Travis Blomberg, executive director of WasteCap Resource Solutions, a non-profit organization that has advocated for the city’s deconstruction policy, said he’d like to see deconstruction continue in 2019, whether or not the city lifts it requirements. He called on city officials to renew their efforts to offer training to workers and companies that want to get involved in deconstruction work.

“Regardless of whether the ordinance is postponed,” he said, “more applied deconstruction will need to occur in 2019 to develop solutions to the current conundrum.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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