Charlotte’s not just going through a building boom. It’s also a demolition boom.
Crews have been busy tearing down well-known structures across the city in recent years, to make way for the wave of redevelopment that’s reshaping neighborhoods like uptown, NoDa, South End and Elizabeth, where building the new often means getting rid of the old.
The list of buildings that stood until recently – weeks ago, in some cases – is long. The Pepsi Bottling building on South Boulevard. The former Jackalope Jacks building on Seventh Street. The Actor’s Theatre on Stonewall Street. The old Common Market building and Tremont Music Hall in South End. Even the Observer’s former building came down last year.
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That’s keeping Kirill Vladimorovich’s schedule full. He’s a managing partner at RCI Demolition, which in recent weeks has torn down the former Queens University of Charlotte dorm on Providence Road and the old Jackalope Jacks building.
“This is the busiest we’ve been,” said Vladimirovich, speaking over the crash and clank of demolition machinery at Atherton Mill on South Boulevard. RCI Demolition is tearing down the non-historic buildings on that site to make way for more luxury apartments, shops and restaurants. This year, they’ll do more than 30 jobs, he said.
The pace of demolition and change can get confusing. A business contact recently suggested lunch at Bonz, a barbecue joint at Atherton Mill, to RCI Demolition’s partners. They had to tell him that the business was closed, and RCI Demolition was gearing up to tear it down.
Vladimirovich said he’s used to people coming up to his workers at popular sites and asking for a brick, or a piece of wood – something to remember a cherished restaurant or old house by. They oblige, he said. And the workers usually find reminders of a building’s past life – a shoe, old papers, cans of Old Bay seasoning, and even, in the case of some houses they’re demolishing for the Monroe Bypass, hidden guns and ammunition.
“It’s part of a big cycle,” said Vladimirovich. “It reminds you it’s not just a building that goes away. It’s a memory for someone.”
Vladimirovich walked us through their demolition work at Atherton Mill, where RCI Demolition is racing to get the site ready for construction. Here are some more details on what it takes to demolish a building:
▪ It starts with paperwork, and cleaning up. Vladimirovich said obtaining the necessary permits and assessing any environmental hazards comes first. If there’s asbestos on-site, as there was in the former Queens dormitory and the roof of one of the buildings at Atherton Mill, workers wearing special protective gear and respirators must remove those hazardous materials first. After that, workers will clear trash from the structure.
▪ After that, it’s a bit like building in reverse. Workers strip the building in roughly the opposite order in which it was assembled by other construction workers. They’ll remove plumbing fixtures and doors, sometimes donating them to Habitat for Humanity. Then the copper electrical wiring and other building systems come out.
“It’s not just tearing things down, like with a wrecking ball,” Vladimirovich said. Oftentimes, they’ll “open” a hole in the building’s exterior wall to pass the materials out through.
“It sounds a lot more gentle than it looks,” Vladimirovich said. (And to be honest, it doesn’t sound all that gentle).
Workers rip off the skin of the building, pulling down bricks and walls. Then they tear down the structural elements, such as the steel beams that hold up the building. When there’s nothing left but the concrete slab foundation, workers wielding hydraulic hammers smash that to pieces and haul it away.
▪ Recycling is key to the process. More parts of an old building find new life than you might guess. Vladimirovich said more than 90 percent of the building’s components can generally be recycled, and neat piles of twisted steel, bricks, asphalt, concrete and wire dot the demolition site.
“We separate everything out as we demolish a building,” he said. “We don’t just drop everything.”
A machine slices the insulation off wires, cleaning the valuable copper. Steel and aluminum are shipped off and melted down for reuse. Concrete and other stone is crushed up and either reused elsewhere, such as in roads, or used on-site to help fill and level different areas. Old wood is often resold to woodworkers who prize it, such as Cope and Stick in South End, which has used reclaimed wood from RCI Demolition jobs for furniture.
The demolition company usually gives the developer a credit for the cost of the materials, which it takes and sells. Vladimirovich said they’ve had copper stolen from buildings before the demolition crews get to it, as the metal is valuable in the salvage market.
▪ Sometimes, the buildings need surgery. At Atherton Mill, workers are demolishing a newer building that’s attached to the older farmer’s market site. But they’re leaving the farmer’s market building intact for renovation. That means workers with huge saws must cut through the brick walls attached to the structural supports at the old building, and cut through steel beams connecting them with blowtorches.
After that, they’ll demolish the unsupported brick wall left behind, making sure it doesn’t collapse earlier than planned.
“You don’t need coffee doing this job,” Vladimirovich said. “It’ll wake you up.”