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City Considers What to do with Vacant High Street Properties

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea City Considers What to do with Vacant High Street PropertiesPhoto by Walker Evans.
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Columbus has development on the brain and a low tolerance for vacant buildings, particularly Downtown and particularly on coveted High Street. So it’s no wonder the vacant buildings at 72 North High have become such a topic of interest that 10TV devoted not one but two stories to the buildings and their owners last week.

The three dormant buildings are owned by the Tonti Organization, a real estate company with a number of properties in and around Columbus. One of the three was once a department store called Madison’s, as evidenced by a dilapidated sign on the front. The danger posed by falling bricks has forced the city to block off several parking meters in an adjacent alleyway – another cardinal sin for Downtowners.

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An eyesore for some and parking issue for others, as far as the city is concerned the buildings are just plain unsafe.

The Building and Zoning Services Department, headed by Director Scott Messer, has already made that determination. According to Messer, a 2012 inspection of the property indicated the buildings suffered from roof damage and other deteriorating conditions. Many repairs were made to the property, monitored by Messer’s department, yet the buildings have apparently continued to fall apart.

“Our first desire is that the buildings not remain in an unsafe condition,” said Messer.

An engineer’s report on the buildings’ integrity is expected on June 28. If the report finds the structures to be unsafe, but not immediately hazardous, the buildings can remain standing while necessary repairs are made. If, however, the engineer’s report shows the structure to be an imminent threat, it will need to be demolished immediately.

According to Messer, the Tonti Organization understands that problems exist with the buildings and has been cooperative with the city. The company did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story.

The buildings have been vacant for a long time, but exactly how long is unknown. According to Messer, there is evidence of at least one recent business tenant, but Messer’s department wasn’t made aware of it. Because of the buildings’ Downtown location, Messer says the city would obviously prefer that the property be redeveloped if possible.

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Messer is not alone in that regard. Nancy Recchie, who has been a historic preservation consultant for 38 years, hopes the buildings can stay standing.

“My personal opinion is that the last thing they need on High Street is more vacant lots,” said Recchie.

According to Recchie, the buildings in question are on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation which will not save them from demolition if they are found to be an immediate threat, but which can help the owners restore them to a safe condition. Owning a building on the registry provides certain tax incentives for restoration.

Recchie is also skeptical about the determination the engineer’s report will make with respect to the extent of the hazard the buildings pose. Though she acknowledges the buildings are “probably in very rough shape,” in her time as a preservation consultant, Recchie says she’s seen buildings “in conditions that a lot of architects and engineers have said it can’t be done and it has been done.”

According to Messer, if the engineer’s report shows the buildings do not need to be demolished, the owners may have as many as 30 days to decide how to remedy the buildings’ structural problems.

“I would really hope that if the current owners don’t want to make the investment,” said Recchie, “they would consider selling them to somebody who would.”

For ongoing discussion on the Madison Building, CLICK HERE to visit our Messageboard.

All photos by Walker Evans.

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