Losing Springfield

June 24, 2013 149 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Two houses – each over 100 years old – have been lost in Springfield within the last thirty days. These are called "emergency" demolitions - although as anyone who has driven down East 2nd street will testify - nothing much has changed with the structures in years. No new emergency situations have occurred – no lightning strike, no fire over the weekend. No hurricane winds or earthquakes shaking the foundations.

The loss of 129 East 2nd Street was painful for the neighborhood –  it was the answer to a request for preserving an at-risk structure.   Although the interior of this house had extensive repairs done to the structure, the porch was in need of attention.   Springfield asked the Historic Planning Commission for help – to stabilize a porch roof which was in need of bracing.  The commission voted to ask Municipal Code Compliance (MCCD) to brace the front porch roof of this house.  Within 24 hours, MCCD's  response was to demolish the entire structure and to do it as an “emergency”.

Yet as sad as 129 East 2nd Street's loss is, this latest demolition on 2nd Street is, perhaps, even more painful for the neighborhood.

253 East 2nd Street was ear-marked for restoration using Neighborhood Stabilization Program 3 (NSP 3) funds.  The NSP was established for the purpose of stabilizing communities that have suffered from foreclosures and abandonment through the purchase and redevelopment of distressed residential properties.

The city's Neighborhood Planning Department, charged with administering the program, selected this historic building to receive extensive work as part of its “Neighborhood Stabilization” program.  

I saw the city walking around the house weeks ago and stopped to talk to them about it.

The house was to get new windows (this time appropriate ones, wood), porch work, siding, paint colors had been discussed...they pondered the use different building materials, the pros and cons of using manufactured trim over wood trim.  I heard city employees talk with pride about the project and the difference it would make in the neighborhood, that this home would once again be a show piece.

... on Friday, when a councilman was driving by and saw the demolition equipment parked out front, he contacted the planning department to let them know there was a bulldozer aimed at their project.

At that point, city employees rushed to the site and contacted Kim Scott, chief of MCCD to inform her that there was a plan for renovating this house along with funding to do so.  

They were told that it made no difference to her,  the building was coming down.

And it did.

As an emergency. “Emergency” in this case is defined as an “extreme and imminent (threat to) public safety”.

Although nothing substantial has changed in the structure of the house -- for years – and while the renovation contractors and the city employees were taking notes, making cost estimates, selecting the new floor plan – the house did not collapse on them.

Abatement of emergencies.  As defined by our own ordinance code.

Sec. 307.113. Unsafe Structure Abatement.

“In the event a structure that has been designated as a landmark or contributing to an historic district under the provisions of this Chapter is declared to be an unsafe structure or condemned pursuant to Chapter 518, Ordinance Code, and either the property owner or the Municipal Code Compliance Division desires to abate such conditions, they shall first obtain a certificate of appropriateness pursuant to section 307.106 or 307.107. Demolition activities shall be performed consistent with the approved certificate of appropriateness. A certificate of appropriateness shall not be required prior to commencing demolition or abatement actions concerning any extreme and imminent public safety hazard, as provided for under an order for emergency abatement issued by the Chief of the Municipal Code Compliance Division or the Chief of Building Inspection. However, a copy of the emergency abatement order shall be submitted with a certificate of appropriateness application prior to either obtaining any necessary permits to conduct the emergency abatement or within seven days of the demolition or other emergency abatement action. In determining the appropriate manner to remedy emergency conditions affecting a landmark, landmark site, or a property in a historic district, the remedy shall be limited to the least intrusive means to minimize the impact to the historic fabric. Consideration shall be given to bracing or other stabilization alternatives if such would be sufficient to abate the emergency conditions. “

Preservation SOS was told last August that these two houses were being targeted with NSP funds for demolition and that perhaps the neighborhood would have to lose these houses as a trade-off for other projects from the NSP funding.  

Of course, we flipped out at that prospect.

So after being told that NSP3 money was coming to Springfield and that some of it was going to be used to demolish historic houses, we began looking to the NSP federal funding agency for help.  How could the federal government give “stabilization money” to a historic district to tear down houses?  We contacted the state's historic officer.

We were told they couldn't without checks and balances.  The Section 106 review.

We learned that section 106 reviews are a requirement for alterations (or demolitions) in an historic district.  Those reviews make clear that federal money coming into a city is NOT to be used to hurt it.

When we ask about this, we are told the demolitions occur using money from the “general fund” (not federal) which is a ridiculous claim considering that the money which flows into the “general fund” often comes from federal sources – although it is sometimes“laundered” a bit using Jacksonville Journey (where does JJ get its funding from ?).

The mayor's statement last March claims:

In fiscal year 2011-12 alone, CDBG funds, in combination with other public and private funding sources, provided for repairs to 81 homes, water and sewer line connection assistance to 69 households, demolition and clearance of 577 unsafe structures, support services to 281 small businesses, and public services that benefited more than 30,200 residents. The CDBG program provided funds for 19 public improvement projects during this period, including 10 projects completed and 9 others underway; and infrastructure improvements for Atlantic Beach Donner Park Improvements, public services for Jacksonville Beach and Neptune Beach.

CDBG money is federal.

When I asked for a list of addresses which were demolished using those funds, I was told “no houses were demolished.”

Preservation SOS suspects that federal funds are indeed being used to demolish historic buildings and they are being used without the required checks and balances.  Merely calling something an emergency, is not a “olly olly income free.”  And although we are a small, grassroots organization without power, or money, and only stolen moments from our otherwise busy lives, we are passionate about these houses.

We promise you, that we'll dig and continue to dig until we find  the answers.  And once we do, we will demand that the federal government get involved.

Surely the city of Jacksonville will pay a penalty for not following the rules.  And the federal government will not like using tax payers money to demolish a Nationally Recognized Historic District and do it so carelessly.

Article by Gloria DeVall