By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The demolition of the tallest, ugliest building in Gary, Indiana - an abandoned 14-story hotel which has been a prominent symbol of decay in this troubled steel town - began on Saturday, said city spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington.
The concrete structure right next to City Hall has been empty for two decades - so long that trees sprout from the roof. Plans called for demolition to start with the removal of a pedestrian bridge, city officials said.
Opened in 1971 as a Holiday Inn, it closed a few years later. It reopened as a Sheraton in 1979, but closed again in the mid-1980s.
Other former mayors have tried redeveloping the hotel, but first-term Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson decided the most practical thing to do is just to knock it down and replace it with public green space, said Joseph Van Dyk, Gary's redevelopment director.
"It's ugly and it dissuades potential investors and I think the removal shows great progress for the city," said Van Dyk.
Freeman-Wilson has also targeted other derelict buildings for demolition or redevelopment. Other measures to revive Gary include selling abandoned houses for $1 and having volunteers do neighborhood clean-ups.
Located 30 miles south of Chicago along the shores of Lake Michigan, Gary has long been a symbol of urban blight. The city has lost about 25,000 steel jobs since the 1970s, and its population shrank to 79,000 in 2012 from 178,000 in 1960.
The $1.8 million Sheraton demolition project has received city, state and federal funding, including money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Asbestos was removed from the structure before the start of demolition. Next steps will include destruction of a parking garage and a story-by-story removal of the building.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski.; Editing by Sandra Maler and David Gregorio)