Scott Ball / Rivard Report
One year after the launch of the City's Vacant Building Registration Pilot Program in the Central Business District and surrounding historic districts, the director of the Office of Historic Preservation said there has been a substantial reduction of vacant buildings and mandated improvements to vacant buildings that owners have registered.
There are few absolute numbers available one year after City Council unanimously approved the pilot program that is focused on downtown and inner city neighborhoods, but several council members said at the time of the vote that they hoped the program eventually would be expanded to all 10 districts. Stories published by the Rivard Report in the last year have included long-vacant commercial buildings finally put up for ale by their owners in response to the owners and others that have undergone repairs to exempt them from the ordinance.
It is difficult to measure the direct effect on the city's vacant building numbers, but the program has helped educate property owners, said OHP Director Shanon Shea Miller.
"It's a pilot program, so it could just go away, but we think that there's been enough success that we anticipate it will continue," Miller said. "We can't take all the credit, but we speculate that the program did motivate many of the property owners."
The ordinance went into effect on Jan. 1, 2015. Miller's staff sent notices to owners of 360 different vacant buildings in the ensuing months. Targeted buildings included everything from a boarded up downtown office tower to long-vacant residences in historic neighborhoods. Most of the building cited were in poor condition and were carried on the county tax rolls at very low valuations, allowing owners to neglect the buildings while waiting for a lucrative sales offer.
The ordinance targeted buildings with boarded up windows, grafitti-tagged exteriors, unsafe conditions or that were being used by vagrants or drug dealers. The notices informed owners they were obligated by city ordinance to register their property along with a rehabilitation or maintenance plan, and pay a yearly registration fee or face daily fines for code violations in Municipal Court.
The program registered 112 buildings, 36 of which received extensions while they were offered for sale or owners were given more time to complete repairs or market the property. Nearly 50 buildings on the original list are now occupied or have been updated to meet code. The other 156 buildings initially identified as vacant were lawfully occupied or were brought up to code and removed from the list. To date, only 92 property owners have failed to register their vacant buildings.
As of 2016, the City has issued notices for 298 vacant buildings, 152 of which are single-family vacant properties.
Once the property is registered, owners are required to file a Trespass Affidavit, giving local authorities the right to enter the property to deter crime, homeless use and make certain that unsafe conditions do not put neighbors or passersby at risk. Owners of registered buildings also are required to prominently post signage identifying themselves as the owner and a working contact number.
The annual vacant building registration fee is $250 for single-family residences and $750 for all other buildings. The City inspects the registered vacant buildings once a year and charges owners one cent per square foot with a $50 minimum charge. Vacant building owners have 90 days after receiving the letter to submit registration materials which includes a plan for bringing their building up to code. The City can take non-compliant owners to Municipal Court, where standard code violations, like broken windows, can cost as much as $500. So far, however, the City hasn't exercised this right.
"In 2015, we did a lot of outreach and community education," Stevens said. "In 2016, we continue pushing towards compliance."
Buildings like the Hedrick, which has remained vacant for years, is now registered in the city vacant building program. The Hedrick's owner has already met with program officials and presented plans to update the building and potentially utilize it, according to Vacant Building Pilot Program Manager John Stevens.
The program's advisory committee, which includes real estate officials and law experts, has helped many owners overcome issues such as foreclosure or delinquency taxes which previously prevented building redevelopment.
"I think we’ll see a significant amount of progress (downtown) in 2016," said John Stevens, vacant buildings program manager for OHP. "The program can only help to turn buildings over. By forcing (owners) to address building issues, in the long-term you'll see a significant improvement in turn over and spearheading development downtown."
The program ties into the City's efforts to attract new businesses and residents downtown. Broken windows, chipped paint, and dilapidated exteriors can are not only eye sores for the community, some vacant buildings pose serious health and safety hazards by attracting vagrants, animals, and arson.
More properties will come into compliance this year, program officials said.
"I think it's possible that the program could stay exactly same," Miller said.
Program officials will present key results and program recommendations to City Council in the spring, and the Council will determine the future of the program in the summer.
“The goal of the program was never to make money through the fees or anything like that," Shea Miller said. "It was to see these vacant building redeveloped or at least brought up to a standard of care that they were no longer a detriment."
The largest number of vacant buildings remain in the Central Business District (79) and Dignowity Hill (51), but officials said a number of Dignowity Hill buildings have been brought up to code in the past year. The program worked with neighborhood and city organizations to spread the word and encourage people to improve building appearances.
“We’ve built relationships in Dignowity Hill, and there’s been progress," Stevens said. "A lot of the success stories are vacant in the area, but you can’t resolve years of divestment after eight months of a program."
David M. Adelman, the founder of AREA Real Estate, LLC, said his property at 1101 Broadway is an example of a formerly vacant building that was coming into compliance with the ordinance. Adelman replaced the building's broken windows, and had the exterior painted a single color. He recently signed a letter of intent with a company to lease the building.
“While we will have to spend far more to make the building ready, some of which is duplicative, I suspect that the compliance improvements we made might have contributed to our success in leasing," Adelman said.
“At the very least, it is respectful of our neighbors who are either developing new projects in the neighborhood or have been maintaining their properties appropriately.”
*Top Image:The vacant Hedrick building located at 601. North St. Mary’s Street. Photo by Scott Ball.