City hopes threats of demolition spark 1888 building repairs

Nathan Baker • Nov 22, 2013 at 9:15 PM

City codes officials considered asking for the demolition of one of downtown Johnson City’s oldest buildings to spur its out-of-town owners into making vital safety repairs.

Chief Building Inspector Dave Jenny said the architecturally striking structure at 107 Buffalo St., often referred to as the 1888 building because of the date stamp at the top of its northwest-facing wall, was in an advanced stage of deterioration.

Jenny said an inspection performed in January or February revealed multiple holes in the building’s roof and found that the street-side parapet wall was leaning so severely that codes inspectors feared loose bricks from it could fall on pedestrians passing by on the sidewalk.

After months of assurances from the building’s owners, California residents Gemma Velasquez and Murray Cruickshank, that reconstruction work was forthcoming, Jenny said the codes department took the case before the city’s Board of Dwelling Standards and had the work ordered.

“To begin with, we were going to take it before the board as a demolition, mainly to get the attention of the owners,” he said. “At any time once the owners started repairs, we could always have rescinded that order, it just took us a long time to get a response out of them other than ‘We’re working on it.’ ”

Instead, the board ordered the owners to tear down the parapet and rebuild it and to replace the roof.

Earlier this week, after contracts were finalized and permits granted, workers cordoned off the sidewalk in front of the 1888 building and built a scaffolding to reach the upper parapet.

Velasquez said she and her husband intended to repair the building since the initial call from the city codes department, but it took them a few months to save up the $50,000 needed to address the issues at the crumbling historic building.

“We weren’t aware of the condition of the building, no one brought it to our attention,” Velasquez said Friday by telephone from San Francisco, where she and Cruickshank own a catering business. “It’s been a few years since we’ve been there. All of the damage you can’t really tell until you’re up on the roof, and there was never any water intrusion into the building.”

The couple purchased the building more than a decade ago, Velasquez said, during a brief period when they lived in Johnson City for her job.

“We love old beautiful things and buildings, and thought was striking architecturally,” she said. “When we noticed it was up for sale, we contacted the owner and purchased it.”

They also own an historic home on West Main Street in downtown Jonesborough, Velasquez said.

The couple still hangs on to notions of restoring the downtown Johnson City building, but so far funds haven’t allowed it.

“Eventually we’d love to move back to Tennessee, but that may be a while since we’re trying to finance our way to do that,” she said. “The cost of repairs are significant, and we’re not a wealthy couple. Eventually we’d love to bring her back to her glory, but right now, our immediate concern is stability.”

Velasquez said they’ve considered selling the property, but haven’t had any offers, and don’t have any plans to sell at the moment.

Shannon Castillo, the Washington County Economic Development Council’s director of redevelopment, said crumbling buildings like the 1888 building pose a significant hindrance to the city’s downtown revitalization efforts.

“When I have somebody wanting to buy a building, or see one for sale, and on one side the building is basically being propped up by 2-by-4s, and on the other side is just an empty shell, if I had somebody interested in buying that building, when they see that, they’re not going to put any money into it, even if what’s in-between is a great building,” Castillo said. “It’s great that the city held that building’s owners’ feet to the fire, and it’s great that the owners have stepped up and are spending some money to stabilize it.”

She said there aren’t a large number of buildings in blighted conditions downtown, but those that are there stand out and cast a shabby shadow on the other, nicer structures.

“When you have absentee owners, they don’t know what the building looks like, because they don’t see it every day,” Castillo said. “Of course it poses a problem if they aren’t keeping abreast of what’s happing to their building or what’s happening around them.”

Castillo applauded the recent push from the city’s codes enforcement office to inspect downtown buildings and enforce safety and habitability standards.

Jenny said when the codes department was consolidated into the city’s Development Services Department two years ago under the leadership of Director Angie Carrier, the enforcement philosophy for the downtown core turned from a reactive position to a proactive one.

“(Carrier) is very big on trying to redevelop downtown, so she directed us to go down, walk through the buildings and evaluate them for safety issues,” Jenny said.

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