Some decades back I was rumbling around Detroit, urban spelunking as we called it. The majesty of urban ruins, endemic in the city back then, captivated those of us committed to living there. I knew each building by name, feeling morally obligated as a 4th generation Detroiter to give witness in their demise. Those of us who consciously chose to live downtown back then shared observations, signs of activity of any kind that might indicate a threat to the ornate architecture that remained of the early 1900s. We scoured the papers, observing the real estate transactions that formed the foundation of future land grabs. Speculation back then was only for those with time on their hands and no need for a quick flip.
Late in the afternoon, I recall seeing something strange on the brick façade of one of my favorite buildings, a stunning pre-war apartment house, now vacant, windows gaping open, menacing decorative gargoyles long scalped. Nestled alongside the vibrant colors of a more recent tag, was a stencil, a proclamation that had appeared since my last check on the building. It measured about 30 inches across, obviously applied quickly, the stencil removed, no doubt to be used again on the next building. It said this: Demolished by Neglect.
Since that time, I have become a professional in the field of Historic Preservation. Detroit, one of the most complex urban environments in the world, was both my muse and my classroom. Shortly after seeing that declaration on the bricks, I found myself in the company of an individual who may indeed have coined the term. He lived in a raw loft space, the sole occupant in the entire block, smack dab in the city center. Tagging buildings with “Demolished by Neglect’ was a movement, a radical approach to bringing attention not only to those perpetrating the neglect but those in a position to do something about it.
Today the term is the catalyst for city ordinances that speak directly to the phenomena. Some stronger, some weaker, but all addressing a tool used by owners, often developers, intent on avoiding the cost of rehabilitation, viewing anything short of a cleared lot as an obstruction to a future sale or their own development plans.
Here in Columbus, we do speak to this issue within the Columbus City Code. Chapter 3116.22 of the City Code is titled: Failure to maintain. It allows a historic district commission to, by resolution, “present evidence of a violation to the Development Regulation Administrator who shall then initiate appropriate action…” There exists ongoing discussion among professionals as to the definition of ‘Demolition by Neglect’ and how ‘failure to maintain’, including the language used in our own Code, does or does not address the problem sufficiently.
In short, ‘Demolition by Neglect’ describes the intentional neglect of a building by the owner in order to accomplish certain outcomes. These outcomes may include proving to a governing authority that the building is a public safety hazard and must be demolished. Another outcome, in the case where a building is protected by historic designation, is the building deteriorating beyond the point of repair, meeting the threshold of deterioration required for demolition to become an option in the eyes of historic preservation officers. Two case studies come to mind that illustrate the phenomena quite clearly. Both are in Detroit and I use them here for educational purposes only. If you are aware of comparable examples here in Columbus, please feel free to share them with me via email at nkotting (at) germanvillage (dot) com. The first involves a prominent Detroit name you will all recognize: CLICK HERE TO READ. The second is a case study of a building known as the University Club of Detroit. You can read the chronology of its demise by CLICKING HERE
Generally speaking, here in German Village, the German Village Commission uses the 50% rule when determining whether or not a building is a candidate for potential demolition, meaning 50% of the structure being in such poor condition as to be beyond repair. Extensive analysis, including structural engineer reports, are often requested in order to truly ascertain the condition of the building.
Since German Village is predominantly built out with very few opportunities for new development, the current code generally suffices in giving the historic preservation office the authority it needs to protect buildings from the effects of poor maintenance.
When failure to maintain becomes evident, a code violation is issued. Examples of failure to maintain would be the appearance of exterior deterioration that threatens the structure itself. Missing roofing material, exposing roof decking to moisture and rot; spalled bricks and missing mortar, again allowing moisture to penetrate and further erode the masonry through freeze-thaw cycles; Window and door frame deterioration resulting in a lost seal, again allowing the weather to infiltrate the fabric of the building.
In a predominantly residential district such as ours, it is relatively easy to monitor the condition and observe evidence of inadequate maintenance of individual buildings. Making sure potential issues are brought to my attention, as advocate, or directly to the City Historic Preservation Office as soon as possible, will prevent a situation from becoming financially prohibitive for an owner to address.
What we must be vigilant about is the rare case where a property located within our district is under the ownership of an entity intent on developing that property. Should there be existing structures on that property, it is especially important to monitor the condition of those structures for any evidence of intentional neglect.
To be clear, intentional neglect is a tool actively used by developers to avoid preservation regulations and avoid the cost of bringing a building into compliance. The deterioration of critical elements of a pre-1900 building is easily accelerated, especially in months of threatening weather such as those we are about to experience here in Ohio.
So, what to look for? Indications of potential demolition-by-neglect may include a lack of security fencing to protect a vacant building from vagrants and drug activity; windows left open or missing and not replaced, allowing both weather infiltration and trespass; signs of scalpers operating in the building removing architectural features suitable for sale such as doorknobs, mantels, decorative molding, decorative banisters, or raw commodities such as copper pipes, roof slate or virgin timber flooring.
If it has value, it is at risk. I have seen copper piping pulled from 20 stories up, thrown down elevator shafts, loaded onto flatbeds only to disappear within minutes. I have seen, in broad daylight, an individual with a crowbar removing slate roofing, loading it into lawn bags neatly lined up on the ground below. I have seen stained glass church windows illegally removed from Detroit sold in New York and re-installed in a Connecticut home. I have seen exterior decorative ironwork stripped and sold. I have personally listened to an individual brag about scalping entire apartment blocks of such materials in a matter of days with the right labor and equipment. I have seen buildings burn, once the scalpers are through, the owners offering some token quote for the newspapers, alluding to shock and sadness, a freshly cut insurance check in their hands. Within weeks, some headline will announce the sale of the vacant land for development.
In the field of historic preservation, reconstruction is recognized as an acceptable remedy when a notable, contributing building no longer exists. In cities where a strong demolition-by-neglect ordinance is in place, such as Detroit, Washington D.C. and New Orleans, it is entirely possible for a governing body to require the total reconstruction of a historic building lost to neglect. It is this strength of potential enforcement that serves to dissuade developers from using neglect as a demolition tool. Columbus City Code 3116.22 is a good start in giving our historic district commission the authority it needs to avoid structurally threatening neglect.
Given the market-driven trend in development that now embraces the incorporation of existing building stock into unique new housing and commercial space, it is my hope that we see a decline in the use of neglect as a demolition tool. In spite of these promising trends, it might very well be prudent for the City of Columbus to look more closely at crafting a strong ordinance that specifically addresses the phenomena of Demolition-by-Neglect, beyond failure to maintain.