Sixty-five properties out of 338 vacant structures identified under the City’s vacant building registration program have been improved for habitability or marketability, according to Shanon Shea Miller, director of the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP).
One example of success Miller noted during her briefing to City Council members is David Adelman, founder of AREA Real Estate, LLC, and his vacant commercial building at 1101 Broadway, near the Pearl and Maverick Park. Adelman has improved it and is now finalizing a lease for a tenant.
A home registered through the program located at 645 E. Park, has been sold and is currently undergoing rehabilitation, Miller said. Houses at 509 Madison and 2055 W. Woodlawn have been improved and are for sale. The owner of a home at 118 Bufford Alley improved it and has brought it up to standard. Two-story residential properties at 235 Claremont and 132 E. Magnolia have also been rehabilitated.
The pilot program was launched more than a year ago to spur economic redevelopment through the rehabilitation and reuse of vacant and blighted structures. The program was also designed to urge more accountability among property owners and help create a safer environment for residents that live near vacant structures.
City officials said the program has been successful, as a whole, in taking formal inventory of vacant buildings in the central business district (CBD), historic districts and within a certain radius of active military bases.
“The intent has been to address blighting influences these buildings have,” said City Manager Sheryl Sculley. In its most recent count, prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the City registered 338 vacant structures in the focus areas, with 179 of them in historic districts, and 83 in the CBD. These numbers were not broken down into commercial and residential properties.
Criminal activity tends to rise around vacant properties, Miller said, but there had been a combined 27% drop in police, fire and EMS calls for service around such properties in 2015.
Miller outlined numerous reasons why a downtown-area building becomes vacant: market factors, speculation of future values, issues with code compliance and property rights, low property tax assessment, and a lack of incentives for redevelopment. Miller also said sometimes there’s a disagreement among heirs in a property ownership case.
Property value by can decrease as much as $7,600, depending on how close occupied/habitable structures are to the vacant building in a specific area, Miller said.
Because every registered building may have a complex case, the OHP hired and trained four people between November 2014 and March 2015 to help begin to implement the pilot program. John Stevens, who was already working for the City, was appointed as special projects manager for the initiative.
Miller said the ordinance supporting the vacant building registration program has been flexible enough to give property owners time enough – 90 days – to officially register a building that has been identified for inclusion. A building must be vacant for at least 30 days to be considered for the program.
“The owner then has 30 days to submit a plan of action,” Miller said, adding the plan only needs to outline how the vacant building would be made compliant with the ordinance or be fully occupied.
City officials realize, given certain circumstances, a property owner needs enough time and resources to comply with the ordinance. When an owner registers and submits an action plan, City staff monitors improvements. If an owner fails to register, staff initially encourages compliance. Pursuing legal action is a last resort, she said, and in some instances an extension is given to the property owner.
“The goal, of course, is compliance – not a fine or legal action,” Miller said.
The panel has made some recommendations, including a fee waiver for well-maintained commercial properties, a 90-day grace period for new owners of a vacant property, and a way to incentivize owners to register early. The committee also has recommended there be a late registration fee, and is forming a subcommittee to review high-profile extension and fee waiver requests.
OHP staff will return to the council in June with more program results and recommendations, such as making the program a permanent part of OHP operations, Miller said.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and some council members said the program has potential to go citywide, and that it can be further used as a tool for educational outreach.
Parts of the pilot program encouraged property owners to be “proactive and do something positive with their properties,” Taylor said.
Councilman Alan Warrick (D2), whose district has many vacant structures in the Eastside, asked whether the program will address historic homes in non-historic districts.
Miller said her staff could look at that issue, but suggested that for now the registration program would remain focused on the current geographic areas of concentration.
While his district has no registered vacant buildings, Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) said the City could benefit from the program expanding citywide.
“It doesn’t mean there’s no need. We’ve got to have original thinking to protect the neighborhood,” he said.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) echoed Gallagher’s sentiment: “The question is, if it’s a good fit for downtown, why shouldn’t it work for the rest of the city?”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who represents the business district, said he likes growing the program, but urged caution when complex issues such as property rights come into play.
“Sometimes we can push a little too far and that can tend to bring on some collateral damage,” he added, referring to unintended consequences for property owners that may not have the resources or ability to comply.
“We can certainly expand the program, but we should be more methodical,” Treviño said.
Top Image: View of 1101 Broadway Street. Photo by Scott Ball.