After sputtering in its inaugural year, a newly passed city policy requiring historic homes to be deconstructed rather than demolished is on-hold.
The Milwaukee Common Council voted unanimously on Monday to pause the city’s deconstruction policy a year after it went into effect, citing in part an increase in the number of condemned homes.
Advocates of the deconstruction requirement had argued it would create jobs and bolster a niche industry that salvages and resells old-growth timber and other building materials pulled from houses built before 1930.
But many of the expected benefits – as well as the training seminars city officials had said they’d hold for workers and contractors – had not come about as promised. When deconstruction projects were put out to bid, the offers made in response were often either incomplete or overpriced, according to a recent evaluation of the policy. Private deconstruction projects, meanwhile, were a rarity last year, leading to a rise in the number of condemned homes in the city.
After a tense committee meeting last week, the Milwaukee Common Council voted on Monday to pause the enforcement of the deconstruction policy until March 1, 2020. Alderman Russell Stamper, a sponsor of the proposed delay, said putting things on hold will allow the city to raze many condemned homes in 2019.
“I am happy that we can do some demolition,” Stamper said. “It has been stalled. We couldn’t get it correct. And, now that we have a plan, I think the plan will work both ways, for the residents and the houses that need to be removed.”
Stamper said the city will be better positioned this year than in 2018 to fight blight. An amendment to the city’s current budget designated an additional $1.5 million for blight-removal work, providing officials with $3.2 million for tearing down condemned properties. Supporters of that amendment overcame a veto attempt by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who had sought to reduce the amount of money that could be used to support the city’s deconstruction policy, which he said had made blight worse than before.
Yet, even with matters officially on hold, the deconstruction of houses won’t stop entirely next year. The revised policy approved on Monday includes a requirement calling on the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services to conduct a deconstruction project or hire city staff to do so by April 1. The common council also wants a workshop organized to find contractors who can perform deconstruction work.
With the deconstruction policy on pause, contractors will no longer have to worry about the penalties they could be faced with if they didn’t heed its requirements. The policy allowed city officials to impose thousands of dollars’ worth of fines on anyone who had demolished a property that should have deconstructed.
A recent city review of the deconstruction policy found that, from December 2017 to December 2018, the number of condemned houses in Milwaukee increased from 384 to 520. The city also struggled to find contractors capable of performing deconstruction work. Many companies shied away from deconstruction projects after learning how much money they’d have to spend to start doing that sort of work.
Some contractors, though, did step forward. The first deconstruction project pursued under the new policy was done by the Kenosha-based contractor Recyclean. That job had the company tear down two homes on Cambridge Avenue.
The project was nothing new for the contractor, which has been deconstructing homes and commercial properties since 2006, said Kathryn Thoman, senior vice president of Recyclean. The work has taken the company to Chicago and other places where deconstruction work is fairly common.
In the company’s showroom in Kenosha, Recyclean has on display a wide assortment of building materials harvested in salvaging jobs over the years. Thoman said she is still sifting through things pulled from the former Renaissance Book, a shop that once stood on Plankinton Avenue in Milwaukee. Deconstructing the property took a full year. In the midst of it, Thoman and her crew found mushrooms growing in the carpet of the building’s top floor, the result of a leaky roof.
Materials pulled in that project still fill the company’s showroom. The centerpiece of it all is a massive table made from old-growth lumber once charred in a fire. Sitting on it is copy of Rolling Stone from 1974 with Paul McCartney on the cover. Elsewhere are books signed by members of the Pabst brewing family, works of art by Wisconsinites and a piece of furniture manufactured by the designer Gustav Stickley, Thoman said.
Although deconstruction work costs more than demolition, it can pay off if companies are aware of how much the materials they are recovering are worth.
“People need to change their vision to see stuff like this as money, and not just copper pipe,” she said.
Milwaukee’s deconstruction ordinance may have complicated things for the demolition industry in the city. Even so, Thoman said she was frustrated to learn city officials were backing away from it. If city officials let the policy simply fade away, she said, they’ll be casting away a solid means of preserving the sorts of historical materials that are often hiding in often inconspicuous old buildings.
“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, whether Milwaukee is behind it or not,” Thoman said. “Having all this not go into the landfill is the best outcome that you can ask for when taking down a building.”Follow @natebeck9