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DECONSTRUCTION DYSFUNCTION? Officials see little progress on raze list

A crew from WasteCap Resource Solutions’ former Razed & Found division removes materials from a house for reuse. Milwaukee officials learned Tuesday that a local ordinance meant to encourage “deconstruction” projects of this sort is not producing the results supporters had hoped to see. (Photo submitted by Razed & Found)

A crew from WasteCap Resource Solutions’ former Razed & Found division removes materials from a house for reuse. Milwaukee officials learned Tuesday that a local ordinance meant to encourage “deconstruction” projects of this sort is not producing the results supporters had hoped to see. (Photo submitted by Razed & Found)

City staff and private contractors have taken down fewer than half of the blighted properties they had hoped to this year after Milwaukee officials put their struggling deconstruction policy on hold to hasten the removal of dilapidated buildings.

The number of homes and commercial buildings officially listed as dilapidated increased from 380 to more than 500 in Milwaukee last year under a new policy requiring many properties to be taken apart and their parts salvaged instead of being simply torn down. After their so-called deconstruction policy was put on hold in January, local officials began making changes to it in April. Among other things, they allowed some properties to be demolished while still requiring deconstruction for others.

Generally speaking, deconstruction requires more time and labor than regular demolition. Deconstruction is estimated to cost about $30,000 per property, whereas demolition costs about $15,000.

City staff employees had previously said relaxing the deconstruction policy’s requirements would allow city workers and contractors to rid neighborhoods of more than 100 blighted properties in 2019. But during a meeting on Tuesday, Tom Mishefske, Department of Neighborhood Services Commissioner, said only 44 properties have been torn down to date and that contractors have yet to perform a single deconstruction job.

Ald. Bob Bauman, a supporter of the deconstruction policy, accused the department of “foot dragging.”

“It’s paper shuffling, it’s bureaucracy, it’s logjams with paperwork that’s allowing all these blighted properties to stand in neighborhoods,” he said.

The city’s deconstruction policy, enacted in late 2017, requires contractors to take apart, rather than knock down, historic homes built before 1930 — a rule that applies to 43 percent of Milwaukee’s housing stock. Local officials quickly found the new mandate was struggling to get off the ground. Bids came in incomplete or too high. A training program that was supposed to help contractors become familiar with the new requirement never happened. All the while, the number of buildings listed as condemned continued to increase.

After putting the policy on hold, they announced a compromise in April temporarily allowing some homes to be demolished but still requiring the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services to perform deconstruction work from time to time.

This year alone, the city has set aside $3.3 million for tearing down homes. In April, department officials said they plan to raze or deconstruct between 117 and 122 properties in 2019.

On Tuesday, they said they have 113 blighted buildings scheduled for removal.

But it’s unlikely the Department of Neighborhood Services will reach its goal by the end of the year. Mishefske said a contractor is preparing to begin work soon on the first of 50 deconstruction jobs initially planned for 2019. As for demolitions, the department has completed 44 of the 63 it expects to do this year.

But according to DNS, there are still 461 properties that need to be razed.

Ald. Milele Coggs said although the numbers may be lackluster, they’re better than those for last year, when the Department of Neighborhood Services oversaw only five deconstructions.

“I am not satisfied with this number either, but that is nine times what we took down last year,” she said. “Even though 44 is not a number I’m proud of, it’s better than five.”
Mishefske in part faulted some contractors for submitting incomplete bids. Others, he said, couldn’t meet insurance or bonding requirements. He said the department planned to continue bidding out projects this fall, some of which would be completed next year.

He also reserved some blame for the city’s deconstruction policy, which is scheduled to go into full effect again in March.

“My recommendation would be to repeal or continue the suspension of the deconstruction ordinance,” Mishefske said.

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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