Weighing Alternatives to Mass Demolition, St. Louis Is Set to Give 'Deconstruction' Its First Try

By Gray, Bryce | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 18, 2018 | Go to article overview

Weighing Alternatives to Mass Demolition, St. Louis Is Set to Give 'Deconstruction' Its First Try


Gray, Bryce, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When it's time for an old, vacant building to come down, St. Louis has long used demolition as pretty much a one-size-fits-all approach.

Compared to the alternatives -- like a more careful, piece-by-piece salvage job -- it's cheaper and faster. And it's also something of an ingrained habit or tradition.

"Demolition in St. Louis is a family business," says Laura Ginn, program manager for St. Louis Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "This has been passed down (for) generations as the way we do things. It's fast, it's cheap, it's easy. You knock it down, you move on, you get another job."

But city officials like Ginn are re-evaluating business as usual when it comes to demolition. SLDC announced Wednesday that at a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in north St. Louis, it will take its first look at the alternative practice known as "deconstruction" -- the piecemeal disassembly of a building that cuts down on waste by salvaging reusable materials to be resold, from bricks to wood to windows.

Combined with a pilot project that will deconstruct 30 buildings early next year, the city is testing whether it would make economic and environmental sense to adopt deconstruction more often across the 12,000 vacant properties it owns.

Proponents of deconstruction tout multiple reasons for its allure. Economic opportunity and job creation are often at the top of the list, with about five times as many workers employed by a deconstruction project than a comparable demolition.

It's also viewed as a safer alternative, since demolitions can produce "halos" that affect surrounding areas. For instance, a Tulane University study published in 2006 found elevated blood lead levels in St. Louis children who lived within a block of multiple demolitions.

"The majority of the buildings that we're demolishing in the city were built before 1930, so the potential to have lead paint and asbestos is pretty high, and when you do a strategic disassembly of a structure, you're much more likely to catch all of those potentially hazardous materials," said Ginn, who added that, in recent years, stricter safeguards have gone into place to minimize public health risks from demolitions.

But perhaps most importantly, supporters say conditions in St. Louis are ripe for widespread deconstruction to take root, if some extra effort is made. The city's wealth of old, vacant buildings contain valuable, sought-after materials, destined either for a landfill or for a second life.

"Quality, quantity, variety: This is a great city for salvage," said Eric Schwarz, founder and executive director of Refab, a nonprofit salvage business based in south St. Louis. This week, the company secured SLDC's first deconstruction contract for the warehouse at 4208 Martin Luther King Drive. The brick structure, which dates to 1884, "was slated for demolition as part of the Rhema Church's relocation from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) project site," according to SLDC.

"We hope that this is the first of many of these contracts," said Schwarz, who adds that the project will employ nine people for up to six months. He estimates that 90 percent of the building's material can be resold.

He has even higher hopes for the city's 30-building deconstruction pilot set to begin next year. "We're using this as an opportunity to really look at the numbers on deconstruction of smaller homes, so we can make a case for deconstruction instead of demolition on hundreds of homes," Schwarz said. …

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