Sunday, June 17, 2012

Another Step Closer to Demolishing SACG Neighborhood Eyesore

A few days ago, Cathy and I heard that the eyesore buildings next to the SACG could be demolished as early as this Fall.  This is great news for the neighborhood.

When Betty and I surveyed the neighbors back in 2009 before we broke ground for the SACG, a few (like Barb & Frank) indicated that it was a bigger priority for the improvement of the neighborhood to demolish the building next to the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden at the corner of Main and Stoddart. While it looks almost normal from East Main Street, the second floor has collapsed in the back. When I first saw it, it reminded me of pictures of Beirut during its civil war. I imagined crackheads living up there and shooting at us while we gardened. We heard that it had sheltered prostitutes and their clients (which I observed once). At the time, there was a fence around the collapsed section and the construction debris back there and a tree that partially hid the eyesore from view in the summer. It collected litter and the groundhogs and possums have also found shelter there (in between foraging at the Garden). It is impossible to feel proud about living in this neighborhood when this is what you are forced to observe every time you drive onto Main Street.  There is a lot of loittering in and around the building. I have no doubt that it has deterred additional residential investment in the neighborhood.

When we broke ground in 2009, we observed the building’s owner working several weekends in a row in the heat to patch the roof. I imagined that he had his life savings invested in the building and was trying desperately to save what he could of the building until he could sell it to someone who could afford to tear it down and develop the lot properly. However, then we did not see him for the rest of the summer and we only saw him a few times in 2010. Meanwhile, I was being encouraged, even pushed, from several quarters to take action to have the building demolished. On the other hand, another good neighbor was interested in rehabilitating the building for commercial space and a day care. (I thought that was unrealistic). In any event, I have been reluctant to aggressively pursue the demolition of that building. Among other things, we have been adversely possessing part of that lot (with our compost bins and shed). The last thing I wanted to do was poke a sleeping bear that might evict us when we were so dependent on his good nature. Also, while ugly, that building also protects the Garden from more prying eyes and creates a favorable microclimate for us.

Last year, I began asking our contact at the City about condemning the property so that it could be demolished. The second floor has continued to collapse and falling debris has become a hazard for us. I was encouraged to convince the owner to donate it the City (which could then afford to demolish it) so that he could avoid fines, court orders and more taxes. I passed that information on to an interested neighbor who knew the owner. Then, last Fall, the City took ownership and possession and hope was rekindled in the neighborhood that the building might be demolished. However, I was less convinced because the City invested in painting fake windows on the front of the building (which, although an improvement, is not something an owner does if it intends to tear the building down in the near future).

This January, Cathy told me that Urban Connections was interested in developing the property once the building was demolished and I set up a meeting for her with the City’s Development Department to obtain information about what would be involved. He tried to convince her to buy the property (and building) for a small sum and then tear it down. She still needed to raise money just to build something and it was out of the question to also demolish it. (I later found out that U/C also wanted to develop the two lots upon which the SACG is located and the lots where the Block Watch flower garden is located, so this was becoming a dicey issue all the way around. U/C supports the SACG and apparently wanted to help us relocate to another vacant lot on Stoddart).

In the meantime, another good neighbor became a little irritated when I mentioned this development because she had dreamed for years of rehabbing this building and was put out that I was now working to tear it down to benefit another entity. (I tried to tactfully point out that she could never obtain bank financing to do what she desired, but then she began discussing private financing). Over the next few months, she became resigned to the fact that the building needed to be demolished. One of our Board members wants to keep the building there because it partially obscures our Garden from Main Street, but that seems pretty selfish to me. Nonetheless, the interest of these two neighbors in that and our other lots has made all discussions about our new fruit orchard somewhat hilarious as we now have two neighbors that – without having funding in place to build anything – are not comfortable with us planting trees on any lots that they want to commercially develop some day.

As events developed, the initial plans which U/C had for the lots was tempered by learning that another nearby organization had similar plans for its property (which would only require some less expensive remodeling instead of the demolition and construction of new structures). So, U/C is considering other options, but still has an interest in developing the property and is very focused on getting this building demolished for the betterment of the neighborhood. Amusingly, Cathy heard at one point from someone nearby on the southside that the decision had already been made to demolish the building and to give the lot the SACG. While I thought that rumor was hilarious, Cathy did not.

In April, Cathy and I organized a letter-writing campaign to City Councilman Zach Klein -- Chair of the Development Committee --  to make the demolition of this eyesore building a greater priority for the City. I also ran into Councilperson Tyson (who chairs the Budget Committee) by chance (when I was uncharacteristically clean and showered), bent her ear a bit about the eyesore and followed up in writing and with pictures.  Councilman Klein's office informed us just before Memorial Day that they agreed with us that the building should be demolished.  This week, Development Director John Turner informed us that Council had on Monday allocated $2.2M to fund demolition of unsafe buildings like ours across the City. The City had been using federal funds, but those funds were limited to demolishing residential structures, not commercial ones like our eyesore. Moreover, there are two other commercial buildings to be demolished that are in even worse shape than our eyesore. However, he was hopeful that by next month, the City would be able “to contract with private companies to perform the work and have started the process to competitively bid the environmental testing, asbestos abatement, demolition contractor, and other contracts necessary to perform the work.” He hoped to have a notice to proceed in August.

Cathy is absolutely ecstatic (as she should be after meeting with and gaining the support of the pastor of virtually every church within a mile of the SACG).  

Mr. Turner encouraged us to work with the Near East Area Commission to shorten the Commission’s process because it is “allowed 60 days to comment on the proposed demolition and will typically hold three meetings on the permit.” Cathy immediately contacted the Commission to alert its Chair about our efforts and received a favorable response. The Chair indicated the fastest way to getting Commission approval would be to have the City’s Code Enforcement Supervisor obtain a structural engineering report confirming the unsoundness of the building. “[W]e can make a recommendation to the City to include the property on the list for demolition. If the structure is declared unsound that would be the fastest route to getting it razed.”  Cathy wasted no time contacting the Code Enforcement Supervisor as well. The Commission also wants to hear from concerned neighbors.   Once this issue makes in onto a Commission agenda, Cathy and I will attempt to organize the concerned neighbors into sharing their views in support of demolishing the building. (I have already forwarded Mr. Turner’s response to a few interested neighbors).

All of this is very good news for the Stoddart Avenue neighborhood. So, I am cautiously optimistic that our next door eyesore will be demolished in the Fall (hopefully after we are finished planting and harvesting). Of course, there are likely to be delays. There is also no guarantee that other commercial properties won’t be acquired by the City in the meantime and given a higher priority for demolition. In the meantime, we have a neighborhood boy who likes to climb (a future parkour adventurer) and has been trying to climb up the construction debris into the second floor of the building.

I do not think that there is any realistic chance in this economic climate of commercial development on this property in the near future. I have told the City that the SACG could conceivably put a fruit orchard on the property (which would require an outstanding demolition process and lots of top soil and compost). I have begun discussing with our gardeners the possibility of putting split rail fencing and knockout rose bushes along Main Street to deter trespassing and to improve the appearance of the lot.  Next year, if the building has been demolished, the newly vacant lot is likely to mirror the flower garden across the street tended by the Block Watch.   Supportive of the SACG, Mr. Turner has indicated that the City hopes “to add this third parcel to make it one of our larger community gardens.” For that to happen, we will need additional funding, a lot more volunteer support, more gardeners and more caffeine.  As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for. 

Who knows what the future will bring? Keep your fingers crossed and say a prayer for everyone involved.  This process has moved faster than I anticipated and we could be looking at an entirely different landscape this time next year.  Notwithstanding our lack of rain this year, the Lord seems to be smiling on this process.

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