After seeing the number of condemned properties increase in the city last year, Milwaukee officials voted on Tuesday to recommend postponement for a city policy requiring contractors to deconstruct rather than demolish historic houses.
The city’s deconstruction policy, which went into effect at the beginning of 2018, prods property owners to disassemble buildings that predate 1930. It’s a policy meant both to put more people to work on such projects and to reuse rather than toss out building materials pulled from historic structures.
Despite having the support of various local officials, the new policy has floundered in its first year. Contractors have generally been wary of pursuing deconstruction work. The lack of competition on publicly bid jobs has resulted in offers that are either higher than expected or incomplete, according to a city review.
Meanwhile, private deconstruction projects have not been as plentiful as local officials had foreseen, and the city’s plans to train workers and contractors on how to adapt to the deconstruction requirement were never carried out. All of that has happened even as the number of condemned properties has increased.
Faced with the shortcomings of the policy, city officials called on Tuesday during a meeting of the Milwaukee Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee for hitting the re-set button. Their vote, if approved by the full city council at a later date, would postpone the enforcement of the program until Jan. 1, 2020.
Not everyone was happy about the recommendation.
Alderman Bob Bauman, who helped devise the city’s deconstruction policy, accused the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services of not doing enough to ensure success. Done right, deconstruction can give people jobs, he said,, noting that it takes seven times as many man-hours to complete a deconstruction project as it does a regular demolition.
The Department of Neighborhood Services “has worked its magic by forcing the council to suspend this ordinance that they probably never wanted to see passed in the first place,” Bauman said.
Tom Mishefske, of the Department of Neighborhood Services, disputed Bauman’s assertion, saying the deconstruction policy has been more difficult to carry out than many thought.
“It has never been our intent to avoid (deconstruction) or not do it,” Mishefske said. “It’s just that we have had many struggles getting reasonable bids and reasonable prices and set up a program where vendors would be willing to come forward and do this work.”
Frustration was evident among various common council members on Tuesday. Alderman Russell Stamper, a sponsor of the proposal to postpone the deconstruction policy, called for a brief recess to discuss matters with Bauman. The two left the meeting and could be heard talking loudly in an adjoining room. Later in the meeting, Bauman and Stamper began arguing out of turn about the policy. Alderman Khalif Rainey, chairman of the zoning committee, interrupted the two by rapping a gavel against his desk. “I’m not going to have the back-and-forth,” he said.
Stamper and Alderwoman Milele Coggs, who worked together on the proposal to put the deconstruction policy on-hold, represent the two districts with the highest concentration of condemned homes in the city. While the deconstruction policy has been in place, the number of condemned houses in the city has gone from 384, in December of 2017, to 520. In calling for the policy to be put on hold, Coggs said she and Stamper are trying to combat the sorts of crime and other troubles that are often associated with abandoned buildings.
“The priority to us is about the neighborhoods we serve and the people who live in them” Coggs said. “We can have a political back-and forth about who didn’t do what and what could have been done all day. But we have spent the last year getting calls from residents, having police service to some of these houses and having neighborhoods that are ravaged with foreclosed and demolition-qualified homes.”
Officials at Augustine Preparatory Academy, a K-12 private school at 2607 S. 5th St. on Milwaukee’s south side, had wanted to knock down various vacant houses standing across the street from the school and build a parking lot in their place. But those plans were halted on Jan. 2, 2018, a day after the deconstruction policy took effect, when a demolition contractor saw its attempt to file permits to raze the homes rejected.
School officials and their general contractor, VJS Construction, then ended up taking months to try to learn how they could take down the boarded-up houses in a way that complies with the city’s new ordinance, said Ben Baenen, senior project manager with the company.
“It took a while to understand what the heck the deal was,” Baenen said. “We’re a year removed now.”
Baenen said it was difficult finding companies who were certified to perform deconstruction work. The choices were limited in part by VJS’s commitment to working with unionized subcontractors. Adding further complexity: If certain things like asphalt shingles were to be removed by hand, environmental assessments would first have to be conducted to make sure the conditions were safe.
To property owners who refuse to go along with the policy, the city can apply a big stick: thousands of dollars’ worth of fines. Contractors who fail to comply also risk losing a spot on the city’s list of certified deconstruction contractors. And the Department of Neighborhood Services can issue stop-work orders or conduct site inspections.
It took about six months before Baenen was able to learn how much it would cost to take down the abandoned houses standing across the street from the Augustine Preparatory Academy. Deconstruction would have added about $100,000 to the total, money that could instead be spent on classroom equipment or various other needs more central to the nonprofit school’s mission, said Kelsey Brenn, Augustine chief financial officer.
All the while, the vacant buildings continued to attract trouble.
“There are people people who break into them and live in them,” Brenn said. “There are police here every day. We found things like drug paraphernalia. It has been a real pain for us.”
A pause in the city’s deconstruction policy would be welcomed at Augustine, Brenn said. The proposal passed by the city’s zoning committee wouldn’t halt deconstruction completely, however. An amendment introduced by Bauman and approved by the committee would still require the Department of Neighborhood Services to take $1.2 million that’s already been set aside and use it for a deconstruction project.
Travis Blomberg, executive director of WasteCap Resource Solutions, a non-profit organization that has advocated for the city’s deconstruction policy, told city officials on Tuesday they were still neglecting to take a crucial step.
“If this is gong to be a workforce development program, the training aspect is going to be very critical to this next year,” Blomberg said.Follow @natebeck9