A member of Springfield City Council wants a policy in place to end the practice of demolition by neglect.
Councilmember Monica Horton represents Zone 1, which includes the city’s historic Commercial Street. At the Feb. 6 council meeting, she referred the issue to the board’s Plans and Policies Committee. Demolition by neglect means failure to take reasonable measures to maintain a building so that it deteriorates or loses structural integrity, according to the Law Insider database.
“Vested constituents, as well as well-established business owners in Zone 1, have expressed interest in council considering a demolition by neglect ordinance specifically for registered historic districts and landmarks,” she said at the time last month.
She said as part of the process, staff would assist by examining demolition by neglect ordinances around the nation and discussing related legal issues and potential enforcement schemes.
Horton introduced the ordinance, in part, as a response to a proposed demolition of a structure in the Commercial Street historic district. That structure, technically two adjoining commercial buildings with a shared wall, built circa 1900, is located at the corner of Commercial Street and Washington Avenue. The brick structure was covered with stucco at some point in the distant past, and pieces of that stucco overlay have worn away over the years, giving the building’s facade the appearance of wear and tear.
Nationally, ordinances to prevent demolition by neglect require property owners to maintain their buildings. Often, these are accompanied by tools like no-cost loans, tax incentives and grants to help property owners meet expenses of maintaining historic buildings, according to an article in the Journal of Urban Design.
The building set to be demolished at 536-540 E. Commercial St., which has been vacant for years, is owned by Titus Williams, president of Prosperiti Partners LLC. Williams bought them in January 2021. Williams also has owned the Missouri Hotel at 420 E. Commercial St. since early 2017. Built in 1929 as the Greene Tavern Hotel, serving travelers on the Frisco line, in 1983 it became a soup kitchen and later a homeless shelter that closed in 2015.
Both of Williams’ properties have been left to deteriorate during his ownership, Horton said, and noted that raises concern.
“Properties that are owned by Mr. Williams do not exist in a silo. They are part of a larger ecosystem,” she said. “Stakeholders want to learn more about Mr. Williams’ future plans. He’s been pretty elusive, and that has created uncertainty for many who are affected by commercial activity on C-Street.”
She said the measure is on pace to be taken up by City Council at one of its meetings this month, though it is not on the March 6 agenda.
Williams had asked the city’s Landmarks Board for permission to demolish the unnamed structure in the 500 block of East Commercial, but that body denied his request in a December meeting due to questions about Williams’ plans for the property. Williams said he presented the board with a floor plan but not an external rendering.
By rule, Williams can follow up with a request to the city’s Building Development Services office to demolish the property after 180 days has passed since the date of his application.
“The strange thing is that even though it’s denied, I just have to wait it out, and I can tear it down in 180 days,” Williams said in an interview with Springfield Business Journal.
Council can be petitioned for another 180-day suspension, he said, but he noted that’s rare.
As Williams waits out the clock, he said BDS told him the denial was inaccurate. His attorney has asked for clarification from the city about whether the demolition application should have gone through the Landmarks Board or BDS, and with these questions lingering, he said it’s not clear whether the 180-day window has begun.
“It’s so cumbersome – I don’t know where the time frame has started to where we can tear the building down,” he said.
Meanwhile, Williams said he is facing the prospect of fines from BDS for not tearing the building down, as he said BDS has declared the building to be blighted and unsafe.
The BDS website explains that the city can require repairs of an owner or can undertake repairs itself and then bill the owner with its taxes.
According to Williams, BDS and the Landmarks Board seemed to each be unaware that he was communicating with the other.
According to Williams, the building will come down.
“I’ve got to tear it down. It doesn’t make financial sense to rehab it,” he said.
He said his plan is to build something that is in harmony with the historic district.
A letter from Insight Design Architects LLC submitted on behalf of Williams to the Landmarks Board said a new development was planned at the site that would create an East Commercial bookended with more retail space and additional apartments while conforming to Landmark Board guidelines for new development.
Williams’ packet also included his engineer’s assessment of the existing property, with photos of damage and information on the extent of required repairs, and the assessment that renovations are too costly to be feasible.
Developing in a historic district is a labor of love, according to Williams. Development is always risky, he said, but development of a historic building is especially so.
“It’s a lot more difficult than people realize,” he said. “You have to be in love with the area and want to see something good.”
Mary Collette, president of the Commercial Club and co-owner of the Historic Firehouse on C-Street, has rehabbed numerous historic structures and observed the preservation of plenty of commercial buildings in the district.
She said the unnamed building is part of the historic fabric of the area.
“I do think that we as a community undervalue our historic fabric and our historic inventory,” she said. “I don’t think we give it the credit that it deserves, and we certainly don’t spend the money that we should as a community to promote it as a historic designation.”
She said Springfield would be wise to protect its historic properties.
“There seems to be value in the business community of what can we get away with,” she said. “How do we tear down the depot overnight on the weekend so we can get that over on the community?”
Collette was referring to Springfield’s Spanish mission-style Frisco depot, which was torn down without warning by the Frisco Railway on a Saturday in 1977.
She added that her experience has shown a building like the one Williams owns is structurally sound.
“Since the stucco is falling off of it, it makes it look worse than it is,” she said.
There was stucco on the front of the Historic Firehouse when she purchased it to operate as an event center, and it covered over architectural features that, when exposed, allowed the building to be added to the national historic district.
She noted the unnamed building is not the only one to have been left vacant long enough to be considered demolition by neglect. C-Street buildings now holding Big Momma’s Coffee and Espresso Bar, the Pizza House and Askinosie Chocolate had all been listed as dangerous structures in the past but were successfully rehabbed.
Historic buildings in the district typically contain strong material, like 5-by-5 pine beams that can barely be cut with a saw – they’re like steel, Collette said.
“Instead of tearing all that out and building new, you go in there and you preserve as much of the original material as you can,” she said. “You’ll find yourself with a much stronger structure, because they just don’t make them like that anymore.”
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