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.
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.
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.