by Michael R. Allen
Last week I noted the demolition of the three-story commercial building at Page and Kingshighway in Fountain Park (see “Demolition Comes Twofold to Page Boulevard”). A driver struck the corner column on the first floor of the building, leaving the corner unsupported. Owner Roberts Brothers Properties did nothing to stabilize the corner, and eventually the building started collapsing at the corner. On March 21, the city’s Building Division issued and emergency demolition permit for the building — and two other freestanding buildings on the same parcel!
The emergency order includes two two-story commercial buildings that stand east of the condemned building. These buildings are vacant and also owned by Roberts Brothers Properties, but have no structural damage that would warrant emergency condemnation and demolition under the city’s building code.
The inclusion of these buildings in the demolition order brings to mind last year’s demolition of the entire Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings, owned by Paul J. McKee, Jr., despite the fact that only one of the three buildings suffered enough fire damage to warrant emergency condemnation. In that case, the three buildings shared party walls, so the Building Division’s action made a little more sense even if it was premature.
This time, the three buildings share no walls. There is absolutely no connection between the collapsing corner of the large building and the condition of the two neighboring buildings. Should we assume that the Building Division is willing to twist public safety laws to allow owners to clear sites for development? Or perhaps the Building Division has such prejudice for historic buildings that it cannot restrain itself faced with an opportunity to take down three buildings instead of one?
No matter what the intention, the result is that one city agency assigned to uphold public safety is thwarting any attempt to implement real preservation planning. Really, all three of the buildings at Page and Kingshighway could have been preserved. Even after the corner collapsed, the corner building was stable enough to repair. The Building Division could have ordered emergency stabilization. Although the Division can only spend money on emergency demolition, and not stabilization, perhaps it’s time we changed that, A temporary corner support — which one can buy at Home Depot and many homeowners could have installed — would have cost much, much less than demolition and given the neighborhood more time to explore the future of the building.
Our demolition process suffers from a lack of development vision. Without meaningful citywide preservation planning, each demolition decision is made without any legal guidance. The Building Division has discretionary power that prevents careful planning. Yet even if the Division wanted to step in and try to stabilize a building, it lacks enabling authority to do so. These issues need to be resolved. Currently, only an alderman can intervene in this process and force an outcome — and not always. We need to reform our demolition process through enactment of real comprehensive preservation planning legislation.