THE BIG house at the corner of West Lombard and South Stricker streets is vacant and slowly crumbling. Drab gray rectangles of plywood cover its 40 windows, plants sprout from voids in one brick wall.
A 1992 Sun editorial identified the venerable mansion as a classic example of "demolition by neglect," and it remains so. Years of neglect by the building's owners, ineffective legal alternatives and bureaucratic delays have all contributed to its decline.
There are many such buildings in Baltimore. Each story is different, but there is a common denominator: The city does not have practical means of holding owners of vacant buildings accountable for repairs, fines and back taxes.
Placing huge liens against properties was an adequate tool years ago. But now the city's depressed economy, decline in demand for properties and aging buildings create a barrier to such properties ever being developed. Often liens add encumbrances to properties of questionable value.
In the case of the Stricker Street house, liens for stabilization and nonpayment of city property taxes mounted over the years, hindering the property's development. Also, the city was slow to prosecute the building's owners for a variety of violations.
Eventually, the historic house languished on the tax-sale rolls, continuing to deteriorate, making it less attractive to developers. Its decline depressed area property values.
Still, it is a grand building, with its 30 rooms, high ceilings and a beautiful main staircase. Its formal entrance features massive granite steps, fluted columns and an elaborate portico. Located on the southeast corner of Union Square Park, a stone's throw from H.L. Mencken's house, it anchors an intact row of Victorian townhouses. Its loss would so severely demoralize local property owners and potential investors that the promise of the neighborhood might never be fulfilled.
Neighborhood residents call the house the Turnbull Mansion, after William C. Turnbull, the wealthy merchant of rugs and furnishings who purchased the house in the mid-19th century. It was a distinctive private residence in its early years. It became seven shabby apartments during the white flight to the suburbs that began after World War II. When interest in city living was rekindled in the 1970s, the Turnbull Mansion became the home of the last real owner-occupant.
But that owner was either unwilling or unable to maintain the house. After he moved out of the house in the late 1980s, deterioration continued unabated.
In 1991, after being cited several times by the city for housing violations, he sold the house to a Washington investment group. The Union Square Association attempted to work with that group and the city to correct housing code violations and to encourage its use as a residential development. These goals, however, were not achieved.
The investment group proposed several commercial uses for the house, which were rejected by the neighborhood association as out of character for the Union Square Historic District. Efforts to get the property rezoned for commercial development were rebuffed by the city.
Over the next few years, the investment group didn't pay taxes on the property, resulting in it going to the tax sale, where the Union Square Association successfully bid and gained ownership of the tax-sale certificate -- a key step to full ownership. Meanwhile, the city invested more than $23,000 to stabilize the roof, while the neighborhood association tried to find a suitable developer.
Aided by the Community Law Center, the neighborhood association began the foreclosure process in an effort to get title to the property. A group related to the investors filed a frivolous lawsuit against the association and the city in an attempt to block the building's rescue. Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed. But such proceedings take time, and time is the enemy of the old buildings.
Just before the deadline for the association to take ownership of the property, the investment group regained control of the house by paying city taxes and fines, except for the $23,000 roof repair bill, which had not been recorded.
The group retained control of the property and made no repairs up to the time of the 1996 tax sale. Some $30,000 in liens and back taxes was required for purchase at the tax sale. There were no bidders, so control of the property went to the city by default in May 1996. The neighborhood association continued its search for a developer to recommend to the city.
Near the end of 1996, a local developer with a stake in the neighborhood and a strong track record agreed to consider developing the building. The neighborhood association asked the city for a fast-track foreclosure and to make the property available on terms that would make the project viable. Unfortunately, the process took more than a year to conclude, and by then the developer had invested in other projects and was no longer capable of taking on the Turnbull Mansion.
Recently, another prospective developer toured the old building along with neighborhood association representatives. To the disappointment of the visitors, the building had dramatically declined in two years. The 4-year-old roof installed by the city had developed major leaks, resulting in extensive water damage to the interior.
Despite this disappointment, the developer remains interested in the building if he can acquire it at a reasonable price.
Neighbors are cautiously optimistic. The interest of the developer must be maintained, there can be no more costly surprises in the building and the city must respond in a timely manner if the Turnbull Mansion is to be saved. Other strategically important buildings in the city have suffered similar fates; the loss of such buildings hits struggling neighborhoods hard.
Considering the large number of vacant, derelict buildings in Baltimore, there is an urgent need for the city to take more innovative and aggressive action against owners of such buildings. Existing methods for dealing with derelict owners should be compared with methods used in other communities to identify the most efficient approach.
Alternatives as imaginative as privatization of the collection process should be considered. Recovered fines and taxes could be used in part to pay for stabilization of important vacant buildings.
Without significant improvements in prosecution, collection and foreclosure, valuable time will continue to be lost. Important buildings throughout Baltimore will fall down or be razed, neighborhoods will suffer, taxes will be spent ineffectively and the guilty will walk away.
Visitors to the city will pass through blocks of dilapidated neighborhoods on their way to the Convention Center, state-of-the-art sports stadiums, Inner Harbor attractions and the Inner Harbor East developments.
Francis Rahl and his wife, Debra, restored a 19th-century Union Square home, where they have lived for 18 years.
Pub Date: 8/05/98