By Margo Warminski
Demolition by neglect is one of the biggest threats to historic buildings today. Buildings in struggling, disinvested neighborhoods as well as communities undergoing revitalization are at risk for different reasons. In some cases, not even preservation ordinances can prevent the loss of significant historic properties.
Below is an article by Christopher Meyer, architect and Covington Urban Design Review Board member, recounting the tragic loss to demolition by neglect of three historic houses in the West Side/Main Strasse Historic District. Mr. Meyer also lists suggestions for strengthening historic preservation ordinances to help prevent demo by neglect. We hope you find this article helpful in saving historic resources in your own community. 

Demolition by Neglect in Covington’s MainStrasse

Overview and Policy Recommendations

By Chris Meyer, UDRB Member

  1. Introduction

Historic neighborhoods in Greater Cincinnati’s old urban cores, including Over the Rhine, Covington, and Newport, are all experiencing an urban revitalization.  People are attracted to the human-scale streetscapes, 19th century architecture, and the intact neighborhood fabric. People can live, work, and play in the same neighborhood. That authenticity is difficult to replicate – it takes 150 years to create a building that’s 150 years old.  There is a limited supply of these neighborhoods and as the demand goes up, so do prices.

Historic preservation regulations protect designated buildings and neighborhoods from incompatible alterations or demolition. Protecting our historic buildings allows us to build on the assets already have, so that our cities retain the authentic sense of place even as they grow and change.  However, there is a loophole in preservation law that allows property owners to tear down otherwise protected buildings: demolition by neglect, where a property owner deliberately neglects a building and lets if fall into disrepair.  At a certain point the owner will argue that the disrepair is so great the building must be demolished due to life-safety measures, or due to a lack of “economic viability.”

Over the past 15 years, three adjacent homes on Pershing Ave. in Covington’s MainStrasse neighborhood have suffered demolition by neglect.  The purpose of this article is to describe the policy framework that failed in MainStrasse so that the deficiencies can be identified and corrected.

It’s important to address demolition by neglect now. In the very recent past Greater Cincinnati’s urban land was not very valuable. Due to the ongoing revitalization, it is now profitable to construct new buildings in many historic urban neighborhoods. That means it can be profitable to purchase and demolish a historic one-story house and replace it with a three-story multi-family building. Preservation laws will typically prohibit that, so developers will turn to demolition by neglect in pursuit of profit. They have an economic incentive to do so. The cost of “repair” means that the economic viability argument could apply to a majority of buildings in historic districts.

II.  318-322 Pershing Avenue, 2002-2016

322 Pershing Avenue

Figure 1. 318-322 Pershing. 322 Pershing stood on the empty lot in the foreground. 318-320 Pershing are the red and white duplex. Roof damage is visible at the rear of 320 Pershing.

318, 320, and 322 Pershing Ave were 19th century homes that were contributing members of Covington’s West Side (MainStrasse) national register historic district. They had been at risk of demolition for decades due to their proximity to the commercial heart of MainStrasse. There’s been a demand for more parking for as long as cars have existed.

Research for this article includes all Covington code enforcement records related to 318, 320, and 322 Pershing Ave.  In 2002, 322 Pershing was purchased by the owner of bar located less than a block away on at 604 Main Street.  The owner shortly thereafter applied for a permit to demolish it for parking. The UDRB, Covington’s historic preservation board, denied the request. Over the next few years the building racked up an extensive set of code violations related to neglect:

The owner reapplied to demolish 322 Pershing in 2005 because the cost of repair exceeded the house’s value.  The request was denied. An email in the code enforcement record noted that 322 Pershing lacked electric and plumbing.

The owner applied for a third time to demolish 322 Pershing in 2006 and was again denied by the UDRB. That denial was appealed to the city commission which overturned the UDRB and granted the owner approval to demolish the building. It was never turned into parking and has been an empty lot ever since.

The UDRB denied the request to demolish 322 Pershing for excessive repair costs. The city commission overturned the ruling.

In 2006, the cost of repair almost certainly exceeded the property’s value. The national movement of people back to cities hadn’t arrived in Covington yet, and urban property values were still low.  322 Pershing Ave is a very clear example of demolition by neglect, albeit one that happened in a different economic environment.

320 Pershing

In late 2005 the owner of 322 Pershing Ave purchased the west half of the adjacent duplex at 320 Pershing Ave. The property accumulated code violations at a rate similar to 322 Pershing. By 2013 the rear roof of the property had collapsed and the state of disrepair was obvious to any observer. The owner applied to demolish the rear portion of his half of the duplex and was denied by the UDRB. The city applied a lien against the property in 2014 for the failure to comply with the code citations.  The lien does not appear to have motivated the owner to repair the property because the roof continued to disintegrate.

318 Pershing

318 Pershing was occupied by the same family from approximately 2004 through 2017. It was the east half of the duplex and it was continuously occupied as the 320 half to the west disintegrated.

III. 318-322 Pershing Avenue, 2016-2018

320 Pershing Ave. in 2017. Note damage at rear addition. 318 Pershing on the opposite side of the duplex was inhabited at the time of this photo.

Kenton county records show a real estate development company purchased 318, 320, and 322 Pershing in 2016. Records show the following amounts were paid:

Before the property sale was finalized, the owners applied to the UDRB on Dec. 6th, 2016 to demolish both 318-320 Pershing because it would be an economic hardship to rehabilitate them. Note that 318 Pershing was inhabited at the time of the application. The owners provided a cost estimate to rehabilitate the properties of $242,274. Combined with the purchase price of $92,500, the rehabilitation + purchase cost would have required a total investment of $334,774.  The owners did not believe they could sell each half of the duplex for more than $167,387 and make a profit.

The UDRB responded to the request for demolition by creating a redevelopment plan showing that the properties could be economically rehabilitated and denied the request for demolition. The key part of the UDRB’s redevelopment plan was the increase in property values.  In 2016, several single-family homes in the MainStrasse neighborhood sold for more than $200,000 so it appeared within reach for each half of the duplex to sell for more than $167, 387. The UDRB denied the request for demolition.

In June of 2017 the owners of 318-320 Pershing appealed the UDRB’s decision to the city commission. The commission upheld the UDRB’s denial to demolish 318-320 Pershing.  In an August 2017 interview with WCPO after the commission decision, one of the owner stated, “If it were up to me, I’d tear the whole street down.”

The properties continued to accumulate code violations during this time.

An email from the owners to the city code enforcement department on November 30, 2018, stated that “correcting the code violations you list in your recent letter would be a gross waste of resources with no financial benefit.” The owners did put a blue tarp over the roof and make other efforts to secure the property, but the damage was not repaired and it remained an eyesore.

In April of 2018, the owners re-applied to demolish 318-320 Pershing, with designs showing three new townhouses that would be constructed in place of the duplex and on the empty lot at 322 Pershing.  The three-story design townhouse design was predicated on making space for parking at the first floor level. That design decision was made by the developer; off-street parking is not required in Covington’s historic districts. Access to parking at the rear of the new townhouses also requires an easement on a neighbor’s property.  The owner of the neighboring property has publicly stated that they would not provide such an easement.  The UDRB denied the application to demolish on grounds that the three-story townhouses were incompatible with Pershing Avenue, which is mostly made up of one-to-two story houses. The owner stated that they would work on the townhouse design to make it more compatible.

At the August 20, 2018 UDRB meeting, the owners applied to demolish 318-320 Pershing for the 3rd time. The design was slightly modified to make it more compatible. Evidence submitted to the UDRB included a letter from an engineer stating that “…(320 Pershing) is a safety hazard as well as a risk for collapse in the near future. Any collapse of the structure may affect the adjoining property (316 Pershing) as the two structures are less than 8 feet apart. I would recommend demolition of the structure immediately for safety reasons.”  The UDRB tabled a decision to allow the owner to redesign the project to make it more compatible.

The owners returned to the UDRB on September 17, 2018 with a revised design. City Solicitor Mike Bartlett also attended the meeting and provided a report from a city-hired engineer stating that the rear portion of 320 Pershing should be demolished for safety reasons. The UDRB approved the demolition of 318-320 Pershing and construction of three new townhomes.

To summarize, a duplex with a damaged half was purchased and the owners applied for a permit to demolish both halves on the grounds of economic hardship. The UDRB denied that application and the commission upheld the decision on appeal. The owners repeatedly returned to the UDRB, continuing to request demolition on the basis that it was not economically viable to rehabilitate the existing duplex and that half of it was a potential threat to public safety. The city could not compel the owners to make cosmetic repairs to the building, nor could the city compel the owners to make structural repairs so that it was no longer a potential threat to public safety.  Without foreseeable improvements to the duplex, and after the fifth appearance in front of the UDRB, the UDRB voted to approve demolition and the construction of three new townhouses.

Note that in November of 2018, a two-story house on Pershing Avenue comparable in size to 320 Pershing sold for $230,000.  The owner’s original break-even point to rehabilitate 318-320 Pershing was $167,387.

The owner calculated that they could make more money with three new townhouses than they could with a project that included rehabbing the existing duplex. That calculation is almost certainly correct. The potential profit from new construction provided the financial incentive to repeatedly argue for demolition.  The owners were also correct that it would be a waste of resources to repair the code violations if the buildings were going to be demolished.  It can be inferred from the statement “If it were up to me, I’d tear the whole street down” that the developer would tear down the buildings to construct new high density homes on the street. That also seems correct in the sense that it would probably be profitable.

  1. Policy Recommendations

There are now clear economic incentives to engage in demolition by neglect. Those incentives were not present even five years ago.  If the city residents and lawmakers want to mitigate those incentives, then they need to take action.

Kentucky State preservation staff provided examples of positive demolition-by-neglect ordinances that will help rectify the situation. With that information in hand and based on observations of how the UDRB functions, the following changes should be made to Covington’s regulations to address demolition by neglect:

  1. Clarify the economic hardship provisions. The intent of economic hardship exceptions is that owners, particularly owner-occupants who lack the financial means to maintain their building, can be granted exceptions to certain requirements. An example of someone who might qualify for the exception might be a senior citizen on fixed income who cannot afford to repair a box gutter. Well-funded developers should not fall under this exception.

The city of Newport KY has a more modern and detailed economic hardship exception. Covington should adopt it.

  1. Strengthen ties between Code Enforcement and the UDRB. Code enforcement officers work on the front line identifying properties in disrepair. The UDRB administers design decisions when people want to make alterations to their properties. There is currently no formal bureaucratic connection between code enforcement and UDRB members, or preservation staff. That lack of connection and lack of a formal communication path can allow problem properties to fall between the cracks.

In the code enforcement department, designate one code enforcement officer as the “Liaison to the Urban Design Review Board.” That staff member shall provide bi-annual reports, in-person, to the UDRB as to code enforcement issues occurring within historic preservation overlay zones. The liaison shall be available for questions from board members at those meetings, and available for communication with preservation staff anytime. The purpose of this is to facilitate communication among UDRB staff, board members, and code enforcement staff.

  1. Strengthen the financial incentives to keep buildings in compliance and to bring buildings back into compliance if they fall out of it. The record of fines on Pershing Ave showed that they were ignored or too insubstantial to affect the desired outcome.

Create meaningful fines for failure to comply with UDRB decisions. Develop a sliding scale of fines that weighs more heavily on repeat offenders, owners who ignore citations, and owners who let their buildings become risks to public safety.

  1. Provide the Code Enforcement board the authority to expeditiously make direct repairs to a historic building if the building’s structural integrity, or public safety, is at risk. The Code Enforcement Board could then apply a lien to the property equal to the cost of the repairs. The city has performed work like this in the past.

On 320 Pershing, the city applied a Lien of $10,000 on the building for fines and citations. If that money had been used to construct a weather-tight roof, years of arguments would have been prevented.

Making these changes will allow the city’s preservation staff and board to focus on maintaining the historic integrity of Covington’s neighborhoods, and it will provide the code enforcement board and staff with new tools to prevent small problems from turning into large ones.

It’s natural for cities to change over the course of time. Historic resources are irreplaceable assets that will shape the improvements to come. City government should be in the position to manage its assets and shape the changes to produce results in the best interest of the whole city. The demolition-by-neglect loophole prevents city government from managing its assets as intended. The recommendations within this article will help close the loophole.

Final Draft 12-16-2018

Chris Meyer is an architect who lives and works at Hub + Weber in Covington. He has served on the Urban Design Review Board since 2012; first appointed by Mayor Chuck Scheper and reappointed by Mayor Sherry Carran.

Post Script: Before this article was published I communicated with the developer of the Pershing Ave properties and there are two points worth clarifying. First, the developer reported that they are fully opposed to demolition by neglect and in no way support this method of business. Second, the proposed new buildings on the site are a one-for-one replacement of the demolished buildings. My thinking was that the new buildings are higher density because they are three stories, rather than two stories, but it’s true that the new buildings are single-family as were the demolished buildings. The larger point still stands: the demand for city living has changed and there is now a stronger economic incentive to demolish the existing small historic buildings and replace them with new construction . – Chris Meyer