CONCERNS ABOUT NOTIFICATION, SAFETY:

25th St. Demoliton Sparks Community Action, Alarm

A Chronicle Report
       THE COMMITTEE FOR RESPONSIBLE DEVELOPMENT ON 25TH STREET found itself in an odd position on Monday, October 4. That’s when Circuit Court Judge Gary I. Strausberg issued his ruling about whether six 100-year-old townhouses at Charles and West 25th Streets could be spared from demolition by developers pending resolution of an appeal the Committee has filed questioning the legality of the permitting process.

       The judge ruled that the community activists could prevent the demolition, but only if they posted a bond of $2.5 million by October 11. The bond would indemnify the developer and its prospective tenant, CVS, should construction delays cause them financial loss. John Wesley, a spokesperson for HCD, said, “I don’t know of any other case in which such a bond was placed.”

       The bond would have required a deposit of $50,000, and a guarantor for the balance. With limited resources and the short time frame allowed, activists realized they could not meet the judge’s terms to prevent the demolition pending the appeals hearing in January, when the judge will consider whether a City Council ordinance should have been passed in order to permit the construction of a parking lot for the planned CVS building. The Committee maintains that, since the property lies in a special City parking lot district, the CVS lot is a conditional use according to the law.

       The judge, by his ruling requiring the bond, separated the legal issue from the bricks-and-mortar issue. The buildings the community wants to save may thus be torn down before the hearing.

       Four burned-out townhouses behind the 25th Street buildings have already been razed to make way for the CVS project--or at least that’s how it looks to activists. The September 10 demolition, which took opponents by surprise, was done by the City’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

       The buildings--a community eyesore for over five years with no intervention by the City--were “condemned” on October 19, 1998, after CVS plans for the property were made known.

       For months, activists had been watching the buildings for signs notifying demolition. No one saw any signs posted on the buildings before they were taken down.

       Zack Germroth, top spokesperson for HCD, said a year’s delay between condemnation and demolition is “average.”

       His boss, HCD Commissioner Daniel P. Henson, III, maintained, in an October 12 letter responding to an inquiry, that “These structures were condemned due to their vacancy and dilapidated condition....All the required documentation was forwarded to the owner of these properties and once the building code requirements were met, this agency demolished these unsafe structures.”

       Mr. Henson denied that the City had a “deceitful purpose” behind the demolition.

       THE DEMOLITION PROCESS

       Copies of condemnation and demolition signs were obtained from HCD.

       The 17-by-11-inch “condemned” sign is red. Its headline spells out CONDEMNED in black one-inch-high letters. It includes a notification that a person has the right to appeal the condemnation order “within 24 hours of receipt.”

       Condemnation does not necessarily mean a building will be demolished; it means it is currently unsafe for occupancy.

       The hot pink sign announcing to the property owner and the public that a building is to be torn down is only 11 inches long and eight-and-a-half inches high. Its headline, two inches tall in bold letters, says DANGER. In half-inch letters below, also in bold letters, it reads THIS BUILDING IS UNSAFE. Legalese follows in somewhat smaller type. On the sixth line of that paragraph, in smaller type than the “unsafe” line, the public learns THIS BUILDING WILL BE DEMOLISHED WITHIN THE NEXT 30 DAYS.

       A bright yellow sign of the same size, with a two-inch headline reading NOTICE, is supposed to be posted on properties adjacent to the property scheduled for demolition.

       At the same time these signs are posted, a notification letter is sent to the property owner. Costs of HCD demolition and related expenses are then billed to the property owner, who is required to pay within 30 days.

       Mr. Germroth said demolition notices “are supposed to be posted a couple of days to a week in advance.”

       Joan Floyd, one of the 25th Street Committee members, says no one reported seeing any demolition signs posted on the Charles Street buildings that have been destroyed. Nor were yellow signs sighted on buildings across the alley, calling into question the meaning of “adjacent” when demolition is concerned. The Zoning Code says “adjacent” means “lying near or close to; in the neighborhood or vicinity of.”

       Doug Armstrong, a leader of the Committee, reports that only two of the four now-demolished Charles Street buildings, numbers 2504 and 2508, were posted with condemnation signs last fall.

       Activists point out that each of the four contiguous Charles Street buildings should have been posted with both hot pink and bright yellow signs for at least a week ahead of time.

       There was also concern that the Charles Street demolition was conducted without using proper environmental precautions. Only a hose was observed at the site when the four buildings were torn down, though Mr. Germroth of HCD said, “Active water is supposed to be rained on it as [a building] is taken down, unless it has been saturated with water” from rain or other means.

       Without the water, dust that could contain asbestos or lead is released into the atmosphere.

       When a private party seeks to demolish buildings in Baltimore City, the process is considerably different, with more rules and safeguards. The six 25th Street buildings are not condemned, so the developer, not the City, will have to follow the necessary steps.

       A demolition permit has been issued for the buildings. Preservation activists are keeping watch for literal and physical signs that the demolition is about to occur. They plan to protest.

       HAPPENING ALL OVER

       The fate of the buildings at Charles and 25th Street mirrors what has been happening all over Baltimore during the past decade. While many structures have been demolished because they were hazardous eyesores, some might have been salvageable. Still others have been destroyed because they didn’t suit an overall development plan.

       Neighbors sometimes leave work with their block of rowhouses intact, and come home to find gaping holes in the middle of it. By then, of course, it is too late to find another solution.

       “No one seems to know exactly when a particular property is to be demolished until the crane and wrecking ball actually arrives,” observes John Fencik of the New Southwest Community Association.

       He points out that the Baltimore City building code itself says “The razing of an interior row-house is presumptively detrimental.”

       He observes, “In many cases, we trade one eyesore for another. The resulting vacant lots become dumping grounds full of high grass and debris, or hiding places for drug dealers, robbers, and rodents.”

       The debris left behind also becomes an attractive nuisance to children. And, charges Mr. Fencik, HCD does not maintain the vacant lots laid bare when buildings are removed.

       He has researched mandated environmental standards and has found that before any structure can legally be demolished, the contractor is required to prove that no hazardous materials exist at the site, with independent third party confirmation. If built before 1950, a structure is presumed to contain such hazards as asbestos and lead paint.

       Many observers believe HCD has not been following these procedures. HCD reportedly has obtained a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency for certain technical requirements.

       Thus Baltimore’s safety-seeking communities should be conducting a demolition watch along with their crime watch.

       On 25th Street, the watch resolutely continues.


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This story was published on November 3, 1999.