Demolish buildings, avoid catastrophe

June 19, 2013

Dilapidated buildings in downtown Washington have always been an embarrassment. Now they are dangerous.

Debris began falling from a building on North Main Street earlier this week, putting at risk anyone who happened to be on the sidewalk. City firemen used an aerial truck ladder to remove unstable portions of the facade, and Mayor Brenda Davis authorized an emergency demolition.

There is some irony in the fact that 132-134 N. Main St. is owned by Jeffrey Watson, a former city solicitor.

How soon will the wrecking ball strike Watson’s building? Not soon enough, based on experience. The city has faced a myriad of problems tearing down condemned buildings. Often, the owners of the structures are difficult to identify or track down; they ignore letters and fines and entangle the city in suits and lengthy court proceedings.

The city has established the Citywide Development Corp., which can tear down buildings under the new Land Banking Act. We hope this will speed the process, but the city could stand to be more aggressive with the owners of unsafe structures. Is it too much to ask that those owners pay the bills for demolition? In the case of buildings so dangerous that access to public sidewalks and streets is restricted and firefighters’ lives are endangered in preventing falling debris, we’d like to see the city press criminal charges.

Too harsh? A wall of a roofless building falling into the street, on top of pedestrians and passing cars, would be a catastrophe. Risking would be a crime.

For now, red X’s will be painted on the windows of condemned buildings, warning firefighters not to enter them in the event of a fire. That may help, but perhaps a front-page photo of the owner of a dangerous building being escorted to jail in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit would work better.



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