To say that Detroit has had it tough over the last decade would be an understatement. Record population declines have left much of Detroit’s houses and other buildings abandoned. Residents have been cash-strapped, leaving little in tax revenue to support the city’s services, which led to the city in 2013 being the largest municipality in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy.
It may be hard for outsiders to see the light at the end of the tunnel for this desperate city, but thanks to the work of demolition firms clearing blighted properties from neighborhoods all over the 140 square miles of the city, Detroit is embarking on a long journey that will hopefully make it come out on the other side. The end of 2014 marked Detroit’s exit from bankruptcy. Firmer footing and a push to rid the city of blighted properties are poising the Motor City for a brighter future.
Some estimates say the blighted and abandoned structures in Detroit number about 78,000. Detroit-area demolition firms like Adamo and Homrich are putting a dent in that number. While these companies are experts at large-scale industrial demolitions, lately the focus has been on removing abandoned houses from residential areas throughout the city. And there are plenty to go around.
Homrich demolished 1,000 houses last year, while Adamo currently has a contract for a 500-house demolition – all within the Detroit city limits. Now the city wants to ramp up housing demolitions even further with state funds earmarked for demolition.
“A significant increase in residential demolitions began last year when Mayor [Mike] Duggan was elected as mayor of Detroit, and the state of Michigan awarded Detroit $50 million for demolition through the Hardest Hit program,” says Anthony Abela, project manager at Homrich.
He notes that Detroit has been demolishing houses since the population began to decline back in the 1960s. Homrich, which started its business in 1964, has always been involved in housing demolitions, but Abela says there has been a renewed effort to demolish as many structures in the city as possible.
Adamo, too, has a long history of performing residential and commercial demolitions in Detroit. But CEO John Adamo says in his 35 years with the company he has never before seen the volume of work that is being proposed with the speed at which the city wants the work to be completed.
“There is a large inventory of houses that have always been in the queue to be demolished, but most of the structures are blighted to the point where fires have burned them out or the condition is very deteriorated so there is an urgency to get rid of them,” says Adamo.
An Ambitious Plan
According to Adamo, the push to ramp up housing demolitions began in May 2014. “The city told contractors their goal is to remove up to 1,000 structures a month. That’s like 10,000 to 12,000 a year,” he says, adding, “The most the city has ever had is 4,000 or 5,000, so they are more than doubling what they’ve done in previous years.”
Adamo says so far, combined efforts from demolition firms have resulted in about 500 houses per month being demoed. Taking into account the available resources of people and equipment, Adamo is cautiously optimistic about the goal. “It’s an ambitious goal. I would like to see it achieved. It would mean we are busy,” he says.
Adamo says he has heard estimates of between 40,000 to 80,000 residential and commercial structures that are scheduled to be demolished. Either way, he says, “It’s still a lot of structures.” Eighty percent of the structures slated for demolition through the Hardest Hit program are residential, with the remaining 20 percent commercial. Adamo describes the commercial sites that are part of the program as mostly storefronts with apartments above them.
The Detroit Land Bank is handling the demolition permitting process. The demolitions are grouped together into packages ranging from 20 to 50 to 100 houses at one time that are up for bid. Larger firms like Adamo and Homrich are typically awarded the larger packages.
“The system seems to be working out,” says Adamo. “They aren’t awarding the low bid. They are awarding the best bid.”
A Different Process
Housing demolitions work differently than the large industrial and commercial jobs Homrich and Adamo typically perform. Instead of one large job site, demolition firms have hundreds of job sites all over the city.
“Each job site needs to be managed and a wide variety of logistical obstacles exist every day,” says Abela. “It is typical for our personnel to be at an address up to seven times before that address is complete.”
Adamo says on a given day, the firm has about 15 crews moving equipment around the city, knocking down houses, loading up material, backfilling and site grading. A crew of two are assigned to each task and crews rotate. “We divide it into those segments of work and then you just multiply the number of crews to get your capacity,” he explains.
Both Adamo and Homrich use excavators with grapple or bucket-thumb combination attachments. Cat 324s and 329s as well as Volvo 220 and 250 excavators make up the Adamo fleet. Adamo moves the equipment from location to location with eight lowboys.
Homrich invested in a new fleet of six Komatsu 240 excavators with buckets and thumbs specifically for the residential demolition program. Abela says the company typically uses larger excavators (in the 300-plus weight class) but the smaller machines make maneuvering around the city easier. Homrich also has invested in specialized trucks to handle the waste stream generated from its residential jobs.
“In addition to machinery, we have a large and skilled workforce who have countless years of residential demolition experience,” Abela says.
Prior to demolition, a property is marked with a sign denoting that demolition will occur to notify neighbors. Environmental abatement is required for every structure.
“Most of the areas are abandoned so there is not a high percentage of occupied structures nearby,” Adamo says. “That’s because the focus has been to remove the worst blighted areas first.”
Water is used during the knock-down and load-out phases to eliminate dust.
Adamo employs a process called “wet demolition” to help eliminate dust during demolition. Adamo says it is a process that originated in Baltimore. “What it really means is just more water than you would normally use but not so much as to waterlog the debris.”
He says the wet demolition takes a little bit more effort, but it has helped control dust much better than a light mist from a hose.
Job sites are kept secure with wooden stakes and fencing until the property is backfilled and graded to prevent residents from injuring themselves, says Abela. “Additionally, we aim to knock down, load out and backfill the address as quickly as possible to reduce any hazards to the neighborhood.”
By the time the demolition crews arrive, not much from the house can be salvaged or recycled. Copper pipes, HVAC units, hot water heaters and cast iron tubs have long been removed by thieves. Brick and block inside the house are not recyclable because they contain lead-based paint. On the other hand, concrete can be recycled. Foundations, walls and driveways are crushed to produce recycled aggregate products. Adamo says Detroit changed its specs to allow concrete broken up into pieces to be used as part of the fill for the remaining basement cavities of the houses being demolished.
According to Adamo, demolishing houses is easy, but the pace at which the city is pushing for the demolitions has been challenging. He says it is putting a strain on resources, taxing the permitting department and overloading servers with data.
“Coordinating these activities is challenging by the volume of work and the pressure of available resources,” he says.
The majority of houses slated for demolition range in size from 1,000 to 5,000 square feet and are usually one and two-stories high. Adamo describes the neighborhoods as being spotted with residents. A typical scenario is having more houses slated for demolition on blocks than are being lived in.
Detroit is approximately 140 square miles, and Abela says Homrich has been in every neighborhood and every corner of the city performing housing demolitions. Last year Homrich was involved in its largest housing demolition for the city of Detroit. The Douglass Brewster Housing Complex consisted of 18 separate buildings: four 15-story high-rises, two 6-story mid-rises and twelve 2-story row-houses containing nearly 1,000 units.
“It is easy to see the positive steps that Detroit has taken in the past few years and in particular the past year as the residential demolition program has expanded,” Abela says. “We have countless stories of residents coming up to us and thanking us for helping to improve their neighborhoods. Every blighted house that we demolish is a step in the right direction for Detroit.”
Homrich performs work throughout the Midwest region, but has a soft spot for its home base of Detroit. “While maintaining this footprint, it has been an excellent opportunity to take part in the blight remediation efforts and residential demolition in our hometown of Detroit,” says Abela.
Knowing the work demolition crews are performing is having a positive impact on neighborhoods in Detroit is the most rewarding part of the job for Adamo. “The immediate improvement of the overall quality of life of residents is the biggest impact. Everyone has welcomed our crews with thankful comments.”
At the proposed rate of 12,000 structures per year, it could take six years for all of the blighted houses to be removed. If things continue at that rate, Adamo is optimistic that people will begin to rebuild and move back into the city.
“If they do half of what they are talking about, it is going to make a huge difference,” Adamo says.
Adamo is optimistic all the housing demolitions will make way for new development and has even seen some new home building sprouting up near the office on East Seven Mile Road. “It’s going to take some time, there’s no doubt about it, but it has to happen,” Adamo predicts, adding, “There’s no way it will until the blight is gone.”
Adamo says while his firm has not traditionally been a residential contractor, it has always done residential jobs for the city of Detroit. The firm is the busiest it has ever been with the residential work it is doing for the city of Detroit, and Adamo hopes it continues.
“We would welcome a steady workflow over an extended period of time so it would be good for everyone if this work would continue at this pace,” he says.
Detroit’s housing demolition program has been a model for the country for its efficiency, according to Adamo. From the city to the dozens of contractors working on the demolitions, Adamo says, “Everyone is on the right page in trying to make this thing happen for the betterment of the city, and it is really refreshing to see that. I see a lot of positive things happening right now, and this program is a good estimate of what the future is going to be for this city. For the first time, there is a lot of light being shined, and let’s hope it turns itself around here in a hurry.”