Thursday, March 24, 2011

City would have liked to see 142 E McMicken stabilized, saved

The City of Cincinnati would have liked to see the building at 142 E McMicken Avenue stabilized and secured and worked for years to do so, according to a recent report to City Council by Department of City Planning and Buildings Director Charles C. Graves III.

The report was in response to a January communication from former Over-the-Rhine Foundation executive director Michael Morgan accuses Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) as being "the single largest destroyer of historic properties in Over-the-Rhine".

In the communication, Morgan alleged that the City aided CPS in the demolition of 142 E McMicken Avenue and 217 E Clifton Avenue as part of the $20 million Rothenberg School renovation and expansion project.

But Graves said that inspectors from the now Property Maintenance and Code Enforcement (PMCE) Division had issued orders to successive owners of the property since a major fire damaged the rear floors and roof of the building in 2003.

These damages were not evident from the ground on the outside but were not fixed by any of the series of owners of the building," he said. "So the building stood in serious disrepair with an open roof for approximately seven years."

'A last resort'

Concern stepped up in late 2008 when the City learned that CPS was planning the rehabilitation project at the adjacent school, which could bring heavy equipment, construction workers, and eventually school children near the property.

"Regardless of who owned the subject building, this was no longer going to be a vacant and unsafe structure on a quiet street," Graves said.

CPS submitted an application for permits for the school renovation in October 2010. Two months later, a report by a structural engineer led to the approval of a demolition permit for 142 E McMicken Avenue.

"This was done because another snow season was imminent and the prospect of the building being stabilized and secured from the elements was unrealistic," Graves said. "Emergency demolition was permitted only as a last resort."

Speaking different languages

One the heels of the demolition, City Council considered a set of recommendations developed by the Historic Building Loss Task Force, which sought to better preserve historic buildings through clarification and modification of the City's building codes.

A motion supporting those recommendations was passed on January 26, 2010.

In a March 9, 2010 communication from Joseph Brashear of Over-the-Rhine-based architecture and development consulting firm Brashear Bolton, Inc. to Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, Brashear said that he applauds the task force for recognizing that there's a major problem, but says that more must be done to give the recommendations teeth.

One change would be to expand the various boards making decisions on historic buildings – such as the Board of Housing Appeals or the Historic Conservation Board – to include people with more expertise and experience in construction contracting and in building and zoning codes.

"Some of the boards have good representation in the area of codes, and some do not," Brashear said. "Few if any of them have members with years of day-to-day, in the trenches construction and contracting experience. A better understanding of financial ramifications will lead to better decisions."

Brashear is also worried about the former Building Department, which split its functions between the departments of Community Development and City Planning and Buildings in 2008, and the Office of the Urban Conservator, which is woefully understaffed.

"They are not only administratively, but also geographically, separated, and their leaders do not speak the same language they speak," he said. "How does this improve internal communication and our ability to deal with buildings, old or new?"

Ghosh was 'duty-bound'

The latest "lightning rod", Brashear said, was the "unwarranted attacks from some preservationists" who believe that building officials such as Buildings and Inspections Division Deputy Director Amit Ghosh are unsympathetic to the cause of preservation.

"The Building Official's primary responsibility is to ensure that all buildings are safe for building occupants, the general public, and emergency personnel who might be required to enter on the premises," he said. "At some point in the building deterioration process the Building Official must decide between jeopardizing public safety and preserving the building."

In Brashear's opinion, Ghosh was duty-bound to order the demolition of 142 E McMicken Avenue, and there are multiple culprits who contributed to the building's demise.

"The blame must be laid at the feet of multiple owners who over the years neglected the building and ignored the City's orders to keep it safe, and at the feet of the community at large for our lack of commitment to the preservation of our historic building stock," he said. "If we cared as much about preservation as we care about professional football, the SOS [Stabilization of Structures] program would already be a reality, our building stock would be protected, the preservation debate would be over, and 142 East McMicken might still be standing."

Brashear also blamed the City for a zoning code that was "irreparably broken before the ink dried".

"The Task Force's recommendations are a step in the right direction; however, our zoning code and out Building Department, critical factors both, will, in their current states, act as anchors, dragging down all our best efforts if they are not fixed," he said.

Previous reading on BC:
OTR Foundation creates legal defense fund (2/1/11)
Endangered Cincinnati buildings now easier to find (1/25/11)
City committee to consider task force recommendations on historic buildings (1/17/11)
CPA program to highlight strategy for saving endangered building stock (8/4/10)
Dohoney: Most OTRF preservation recommendations 'probably unfeasible' (8/5/09)