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Mesa seeks new tools to fight blight
by Gary Nelson - Dec. 14, 2009 08:26 AM
The Arizona Republic
All you-know-what broke loose on a Sunday afternoon in April 2008 in the 1900 block of East Second Avenue in Mesa.
An unattended propane grill ignited a raging blaze that raced through one home and set fire to the one occupied by Bryan Rubio and his family.
Rubio grabbed a hose to battle the flames but the flames were winning until nearly 45 firefighters rolled up. His home was saved; it and two others also affected by the inferno have long since been repaired.
But in a sense the neighborhood is still battling the fire.
The house where it started sits a boarded-up ruin, casting a pall over a street otherwise occupied by tidy mid-century ranch homes.
The bums who used to party in the backyard of the burned house are gone, Rubio said, thanks to some newly installed plywood barriers. But the wreck is a drag on the neighborhood's image and property values.
"When the house stays there for years people ask what's going to happen," he said. "When people ask me where I live I just say I live next to the burned house."
It's just one example of a problem for which two City Council members, Alex Finter and Scott Somers, and city staffers are seeking solutions: What to do about abandoned, sometimes fire-gutted, buildings that can rot away for years, creating blight and bringing neighborhoods down with them.
Finter said he began looking at the issue about a year ago, not long after taking his council seat.
In his south-central Mesa council district, Finter said, "We've had four or five fires and they just gutted the building and they've been sitting there for months."
He added, "A lot of times on these abandoned sites or struggling sites there are issues with insurance companies and it begins to look like downtown Detroit."
Finter said he's trying to find out how Mesa can develop legal tools that would allow the city to demolish unsafe buildings and then perhaps put a lien on the property to recover the costs.
Councilman Scott Somers recently became Somers' ally on the issue, and they've scheduled a meeting next week with city staff members to talk about it.
If Somers needed ammunition for the huddle, he got it on Nov. 30 when an abandoned Ricky Ricardo-era motel caught fire on Main Street just west of Power Road.
The office and one of the motel's two units were gutted. The other unit sports recently installed particle-board barriers on the doors, but the unsecured windows reveal evidence of transient activity inside.
"It's not going to take anything at all to start prying the wood off these doors over here or break a window," Somers said.
"How do you get investment in a community when this is your neighbor?"
Just across the street, on the north side of Main, Somers noticed an abandoned gas station-car wash. "Now that's going to sit there," he said.
Another example cited by both councilmen is the fire-gutted shell of a Dairy Queen in the 4200 block of East Main Street. The place burned on April 29, 2007, and while the site has been cleaned up and fenced off, nobody's bought a Blizzard there for nearly three years.
The city, of course, can't just roll bulldozers onto private property, even if it condemns the property and forbids habitation because of unsafe conditions.
"I'm big on property rights," Finter said. "But it's also the surrounding property rights," namely the right to live or do business in a clean, safe area.
The issue, Finter said, becomes "how do you balance out all the needs and get it managed." His recipe: "A big heaping helping of reasonable" in whatever regulations Mesa comes up with.
The economy is making things worse, said Christine Zielonka, who runs Mesa's Development and Environmental Sustainability Department.
"One of the big issues we've been struggling with is the number of foreclosed properties. They really become a slum and blight issue in a neighborhood and that doesn't help the sustainability of a neighborhood," she said.
Code compliance supervisor Tammy Albright said empty buildings are even more of a problem when ownership issues are cloudy amid foreclosures.
"It's difficult to get a responsible party to come out and clean up the property," she said.
Somers and the others said the research is in early stages and Mesa might need changes in state law to help clean up derelict properties.
"We will look at what ordinances there are across the country and what impediments there may be in state law," he said. "If we need a change in law we'll see if we can talk to our legislators and get that taken care of."
Somers seeks demolition fund plan
While Mesa looks for ways to empower the city to raze blighted buildings, Councilman Scott Somers thinks the private sector should get a helping hand in that area, too.
Somers is looking into whether Mesa could establish some type of loan fund to help property owners who need to knock down decrepit structures.
His reasoning: "It seems to be much easier to have the private sector invest in private property when there's nothing on it."
The problem: Banks are often reluctant to fund demolitions that aren't part of a larger redevelopment plan.
But Somers said some cities provide low-interest loans to tear down buildings. "The money goes out, it comes back. The program continues to fund itself."
One example is Fairmont, W.Va., which has issued loans to knock down dozens of dilapidated buildings over about the past decade.
Another is Williamsburg, Va., which offers zero-interest demolition loans that the city will forgive over 10 years in amounts equal to the increased property taxes it collects on redeveloped property.
- Gary Nelson