The city of Frederick is changing its approach to tackling problems posed by a prominent downtown blight site.
The Department of Code Enforcement will issue a notice encompassing more than half a dozen code violations at the long-vacant building at 56 S. Market St., according to Brittany Parks, assistant manager of code enforcement.
The notice marks the first major enforcement action against the well-known eyesore and adjacent pair of free-standing brick facades since both sites reached the city’s property watch list in June 2014, according to the city code enforcement database.
At least some items in the notice — structural and building maintenance problems — are not new. But code enforcement inspectors held off on enforcing them because of a pending development proposal that would have eliminated the problems.
Redevelopment plans that are now on hold and a plethora of resident complaints have forced the city to find a new strategy.
Tarek Aly, principal of Suitland Road LLC, which owns the property, introduced redevelopment plans through an application to the city Historic Preservation Commission more than three years ago. The submitted project plans called for partial demolition of the 56 S. Market St. building, as well as the two free-standing facades, clearing the way for a two-building, three-story apartment complex.
The project was abruptly abandoned at the end of December, after the Historic Preservation Commission voted to designate one facade as a contributing resource to the Frederick Town Historic District. It’s unclear if the designation affected Aly’s proposed demolition; he did not move forward with his application to find out.
At the time, Aly told The Frederick News-Post he pulled the plug on the project entirely. Since then, he has agreed to revisit a potential development project by continuing his application to the HPC’s July meeting.
In the meantime, a proposal from local artist Heather Clark for a temporary public art display at the site would address some outstanding code problems. As part of the approval of her proposed Sky Stage project, the HPC required Clark and project partner the Frederick Arts Council to secure the facades and several components of the adjacent building.
Construction on the art project is set to begin in the next few weeks, Parks said Wednesday.
To local resident Ned Bond, the timeline is too long.
In an email Tuesday to city officials, local residents and The News-Post, he called for “immediate and positive motion” as the only “acceptable” method to address serious safety hazards.
In an interview Wednesday, he named a site evaluation by a structural engineer and condemnation from the city as two measures that need to be done.
Between Sunday and Tuesday, Bond submitted complaints and photographs to the city documenting nine code violations at the site. Copies were provided to The News-Post.
The descriptions and photos depict a host of problems with the building, including a partially collapsed chimney and a caving roof ridden with holes. An open back door allows easy access to the inside of the building, where exposed electric wires, loose timber and rotting boards fill the room. Many of these problems remain hidden from the public right of way.
Bond faulted the city for what he said was its failure to acknowledge and address growing safety hazards. He said employees knew about them from prior inspections and redevelopment plans.
Bond said it was “only a matter of time” before the building collapses.
City steps up
Nikki Bamonti, executive assistant to the mayor, said a pending project stopped the city from issuing new violations. The city knew the site would be secured and problems addressed once plans were finalized and renovation work began, she said.
“The initial plan was that all these things would align together,” she said. “But if things keep [getting postponed], we don’t want this to drag on.”
Parks confirmed on Thursday that the code enforcement department planned to send the notice of violation later in the day.
Complaints related to the inside of the property will not be in the notice because inspectors can’t get in to confirm these problems without permission, she said. As of Thursday, she had not contacted the property owner to ask for permission.
Abdullah Hijazi, an attorney representing Aly, declined to comment in a phone interview on Wednesday. He said his client would discuss the problems and take action after receiving the list of violations.
Correcting the violations will require HPC approval.
City code gives property owners 30 days to address code violations before fines of $400 per violation set in. The city may grant extensions.
Even if city officials give Aly an extension, Parks said it was unlikely he could delay action on the notice to the HPC meeting in July. Parks said she anticipated the city would ask the property owner to seek HPC approval to address violations within its next month of meetings.
“We’re not going to let it sit for six months,” she said.
The big picture
Regardless of how and when the violations are fixed, the property owner must make it happen, Parks said.
“I’m less concerned about the developer at this point,” he said. “The grief I have is with the city.”
At a meeting Wednesday night, members of the Blighted and Vacant Property Ad Hoc Committee also discussed how the site exemplified larger problems with city policy.
“This property didn’t become dilapidated overnight,” member David Esworthy said. “Do we have to wait for someone to complain to take action? Or do we not take action because of an expectation for development to occur?”
Kara Norman, a committee member and executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, said certain problems might be missed or be so familiar, they “hide in plain sight.”
Dan Hoffman, the division manager of code enforcement, defended the existing process. He highlighted the challenge for city employees and officials to balance the interests of downtown residents and safety concerns with economic development.
“If we know a developer is developing a project, why would we want to penalize them and throw another hurdle into economic development,” he said. “On the other hand, it sitting there looking like crap is not economic development.”