It took a little more than two weeks for a slight curve in the wall of a downtown building to erupt into a gaping fissure.

The break, at 304 N. Market St., spanned half the length of the building’s first story, causing the blue-painted brick facade to buckle severely.

Amid growing safety concerns, the city intervened. On March 25, a city-hired contractor shored up the exterior wall with long wooden beams. The measure was intended to be a temporary solution until the property owner could get a licensed contractor to permanently repair the structure.

The property is owned by Julia & James Properties LLC, which lists Duk Hee Ro as its principal. Ro’s company also owns several other downtown properties identified on the city’s blighted property and property watch list.

Ro didn’t return three phone messages seeking comment for this story.

City employees from various departments have been in contact with her about the structural problems since March 10, according to Nikki Bamonti, the mayor’s executive assistant.

Breaking point

Six new violations were issued for the property on March 15. In addition to interior and exterior structural problems, the building was also cited for electrical and plumbing problems, according to the city’s online code enforcement database.

The building was originally identified on the city’s property watch list in June 2014, but has since been removed.

Some local residents pointed to the fissure as the latest example in a long line of problems with the way the city enforces property maintenance and addresses blight and vacancy problems.

Concerns took a heated turn after Ned Bond, a city resident and vocal critic of city blight enforcement, started an email chain among various residents, city employees and elected officials. The Frederick News-Post was copied on the emails.

“Indifference,” “ineptitude,” and “a very bad habit of misleading the public” were among the accusations Bond wrote in reference to the city in a series of emails between March 23 and 26.

Truby LaGarde, a downtown resident, neighborhood advisory council leader and member of the recently reconvened Blighted and Vacant Property Ad Hoc Committee, said she was most disappointed by the city’s lack of response to the problem.

She noticed the fissure from her nearby home nearly a week before the city had its contractor shore up the exterior, LaGarde said in a phone interview on Thursday.

The structural problem itself was less surprising, she said, given the building’s age and years of partial or full vacancy.

Bruce Albaugh, who also lives downtown, agreed.

“The problem here is not so much blight as it is habitual vacancy,” he said. “After years of just sitting empty, these buildings start to collapse.”

The second-floor apartments are still vacant, but a smoke shop, Smoke Signals, has leased the first floor. The business owner did not return a phone message for comment.

Hidden in the walls

The fissure itself didn’t appear until March 10, and worsened rapidly since then, according to Brittany Parks, assistant manager of code enforcement.

Albaugh said the city should have detected signs of deterioration earlier. Inspectors with the code enforcement department have visited the site regularly as it was on the blighted and property watch list and after it was removed.

But Tee Pecora, a structural engineer and principal of Pecora Engineering LLC, said signs of severe structural problems may have been virtually impossible to detect.

“We can’t see through walls,” he said in a phone interview on Friday.

Pecora emphasized that his opinion was hypothetical, since he had not seen the interior of the property and was unaware of other factors that may be involved in this case.

Based on seeing the exterior on Friday, however, Pecora said the problem appears far more severe than simple foundation resettlement. And though the problem likely worsened over a long period of time, Pecora said there may not have been any visible signs, even to a structural engineer’s expert eye.

“Sometimes, these things happen where incrementally there’s enough stress that it causes a sudden appearance of this kind of distress,” he said.

The wood beam bracing against the fissure will at least stop the fissure from continuing to spread, Pecora said.

“It looks like [the city] has taken the appropriate measure, at least for safety’s sake,” he said.

Fines possible

Ro has hired Matonak Snyder & Associates, a structural engineering firm based in Hagerstown, to inspect and repair the building, according to Bamonti. Building permits and necessary historic preservation department approvals have also been granted.

Daniel Matonak, owner and chief engineer of the company, declined to comment on the repair plan or results of an initial inspection. In a phone interview on Thursday, he referred all questions to the property owner.

Ro has until April 15, one month after the city issued citations, to address the problems or she will face fines of up to $400 per violation. A lien was also placed against the property for the cost of the city contractor work.

The sidewalk and parking spot in front of the building will remain closed until that time.

Despite the permits in place, LaGarde said she wasn’t hopeful the repair would happen, especially given the property owner’s history of delays and not cooperating with the city on other properties.

“They treat her as though she is somebody who will do the work,” LaGarde said. “But, quite frankly, she doesn’t deserve that.”

Parks maintained that the city must treat each property owner and case the same, regardless of history.

And as with every other property facing notices of violation, the city may grant an extension before imposing fines if circumstances warrant it, Parks said.

Follow Nancy Lavin on Twitter: @NancyKLavin.

Nancy Lavin covers social services, demographics and religion for The Frederick News-Post.

(22) comments

FNP-reader

The repeat problems with the owner are an issue. The City of Frederick definitely does have a problem internally when their staff are so timid that they fail to do their jobs: "Parks maintained that the city must treat each property owner and case the same, regardless of history." This statement sums up why there is a problem.

If a person has a lengthy criminal history then the police certainly take that into account when dealing with that person. If a person has a bad history and might flee prosecution then the court system takes that into account when setting bail. If a felon is convicted yet again and that person has a history of multiple previous convictions that certainly affects sentencing by a Judge. When a person has a long track record of failing to comply with City building code and not complying with previous orders then the City code enforcement office is negligent NOT to take past bad behaviors into account. The City of Frederick Code Enforcement Office needs to be reformed with new leadership and better staff. It is evident that the Code Enforcement staff are not up to the job.

DickD

Complete failure is more like it. What is the City paying them for?

MAVRICKinc7

To keep their mouths shut.

MAVRICKinc7

Couldn't you say the same of Frederick's elected leadership, starting with the mayor of the city?

thevoiceoffrederick

No tvs in windows of shops down town but its ok to hang nasty looking rags or "curtains" I do believe the city code says that you can not block your windows completely, someone may want to look into that. Its tome the city gets real, a lot of places on the north side look like garbage. I'm sure that the one barber shop with the airbrushed sign is in compliance with hpc

exfredneck

If you push the blocked window idea, the contents of the adult toy store store will be in full view.

jerseygrl42

One has to wonder just how long this soap opera is going to play.....

bosco

well, at least there wasn't a television in the window.

EABiker

Is that a neon sign in the window?

Frayou

Somewhat an irony when Historic Commission raises concerns about property owner replacing old shutter with new ones (not being similar and made of wood) risk falling on pedestrians in comparison to this. Darn if you do and darn if you don't. Seems like government officials or processes need to be reviewed?

MMFNP

Sorry, "should prove"

MMFNP

I doubt this is the only building at risk and before millions are wasted on a hotel conference center maybe they shouldon't prove to the tax payers they do or don't have a handle on ALL of the infrastructure/utility needs in the county. For too long now politicians in this country hide tax burdens that need funding hoping it will be the next administration's problem.
Prove you have an up to date inventory of all real and potential maintenance, repair, replacemental needs combined with all new construction that SHOULD be planned and how much that will cost.
Until your leaders can do this, voters (taxpayers), will have no clue how well or dismal that reality is.

KellyAlzan

Almost 30 years in the construction and building demolition business you learn a lot of things you see a lot of stuff

KellyAlzan

Unless caused by a water problem, this could very well have nothing to do with a building being vacant.

Bond needs to go lay down

jwhamann

You're quite the expert in structural decay.

exfredneck

Downtown Frederick and slumlords go hand-in-hand.

DickD

Can't do their basic jobs of controlling structures along the street and they want to spend millions of tax dollars on a hotel for the Plamondon and give the Randalls money that they cannot get for their old building on the open market. And with all this going on they are telling us all about tourism. To see what, blighted buildings? At least if they stay outside of Frederick the buildings along the street will not be falling on them.

KellyAlzan

I keep studying the pics.

With the board, its hard to see.

But to me, it looks like building 304 (the Ro's) is just fine. To me, it looks like it's building 302 that is separating.

I'm half inclined to say that the Ro's building is not the problem and its coincidental that the building that the problem belongs to just so happens to be connected to the Ro's. The FNP and the neighbors may owe the Ro's an apology.

I'm inclined to say that water got behind the brick, the water froze, and caused the brick to heave

ptpalafou

According to the county property records, the Ro's own all of 300-302-304.

jwhamann

And you get all this from looking at the photo?. Maybe you should go see it for yourself. By the way, she owns both of these buildings.

Burgessdr

Clearly brick heaving. Outer layer of brick not keyed properly to the layer behind.

KellyAlzan

Looks like the crack is shared by (2) buildings, 304 and 302, not just the Ro's?

No need to close the walk, as a demolition contractor I think it's safe to say that building isn't going anywhere.

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