by Michael R. Allen
The house at 1512 Montgomery Street in St. Louis Place is a perfect example of the city’s senseless approach to dealing with vacant buildings. This handsome old tenement happens to be owned by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr.’s Blairmont Associates LC, but that’s not what is notable here. What is notable is that the old building has had a severe lean to the east for many years. The building appears twisted, as if it were made of pliant red rubber. The building has also been vacant for at least a decade — not surprising, considering the slope of each floor. In December 2006, the Building Division condemned the building for demolition, putting it on a long list with a wait period for demolition funding.
We all know what’s next, right? The Building Division swoops in with an emergency condemnation and demolition order, and the lot is quickly just another expanse of straw-covered dirt.
Guess again. The building still stands as of the date of writing! The Building Division has not issued any emergency order, and the owner has applied wooden and tube-steel bracing of questionable utility. (Honestly, the part of the building most likely to fall has already fallen.) Here is a house that could not be rehabilitated without complete demolition and reconstruction. Even moderate correction of the lean would cost more money than the house would ever be worth. Contrast this condition with other vacant houses in St. Louis Place and other neighborhoods that have been put under the “emergency” axe for happening to have a non-structural rear wall collapse or by literally being adjacent to a building that has collapsed after a bout of brick thievery. I’ve watched the Building Division take down structures easier to repair (and located in more desirable spots than next to a fast food restaurant) than the sad house at 1512 Montgomery Street.
There is no consistency in the use of emergency condemnation procedures. Often the decisions make no sense in regard to preservation planning or structural necessity. Discussions about how to shape a new vacant building policy in the city should examine ways in which the Building Division’s power to use emergency condemnation powers could fall under some sort of review. We have relatively weak cultural resources and urban planning laws, but what good comes from those laws often gets undermined by a quick decision over on the fourth floor of City Hall.
There needs to be coordination — not a new board, office or commissioner position, but simply a smart policy of cooperation between the Building Division, the Cultural Resources Office, the Planning and Urban Design Agency and the aldermen. As this house shows, even the most tenuous-looking building isn’t going to fall over tomorrow. There is time to make smart choices.
Update: The house was demolished in September 2008.