For years we’ve been talking about absentee property owners, and their brazen negligence that has resulted in countless “demolition by neglect” scenarios. Yes, lots of talk, but very little action, which is unfortunate, because there are still plenty of other buildings that are in jeopardy.
Recently, there was some good news on this front, as 40 Cottage Street, located in the Allentown Historic District, is being offered a new lease on life thanks to the stalwart efforts of Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) and other preservation supporters, including Fillmore District Councilmember Mitch Nowakowski (represents 5 historic districts, including Cobblestone and Johnson Park).
According to Jessie Fisher, Executive Director PBN, it was judge Patrick Carney who also stepped up, designating PBN as the court-ordered receiver of the Allentown residence. The long deteriorating and problematic property will now be fixed up, as a pilot project that will hopefully lead to future similar successes.
For the first time, there is real hope that these types of preservation battles can not only be addressed, they can be solved. For years, we have watched as the historic fabric of our neighborhoods has crumbled, especially in areas such as the East Side. But this problem has occurred time and time again, in all parts of our city, from the West Side to The Cobblestone District.
The particular building at 40 Cottage Street, owned by Charles Dobucki (out of state) has been causing problems for years. Since owning the currently-vacant residence (two structures – front and back), there have been numerous problems and complaints generated by neighbors and The Allentown Association. But the owner pays his taxes so the City has had relatively little recourse. He also pays his Housing Court fines, but does nothing to address the underlying problems. The really sad part is that he owns 5 properties in Allentown and Johnson Park, and all are vacant and deteriorating, says Fisher.
“We don’t care if he’s punished,” says Fisher. “We want resolution. We want to protect the building and the neighbors. We were in there this morning, and there have been squatters living in there.”
I asked Fisher why anyone would want to own a vacant and deteriorating building. She told me that until now there has not been enough pressure put on the owners to do the right thing. So they sit on the properties, for whatever reasons, and scoff at the slaps on the hands.
Now, there’s going to be real pressure, starting with 40 Cottage Street. The way this works is, the owner still owns the building, but PBN is the court appointed receiver. That means that the court has authorized PBN to correct the building code violations. PBN will use their own funds and undertake the work. Then, they will petition the court to get repaid, with the intention of the owner reimbursing for the work.
Fisher says that the main reason that they are able to finally do this, is that they have a pro bono lawyer – Charles Grieco at at Bond Schoeneck King. Otherwise they would not be able to afford to undertake this. Also, the City sees the merit of working with an attorney from the private sector – it was the City that petitioned the judge to take action.
The hope is that this “experiment” will return a proof of concept. That would mean that other properties that have been in PBN’s sightlines will be targeted in similar ways, and not just in Allentown… but in areas such as The Cobblestone District, for example.
“This is a shot across the bow,” Fisher notes. “It’s not easy. It’s challenging. There are risks. But we’re breaking the logjam. We’re also getting creative – typically, with a receivership program, the buildings are occupied. Therefore, the ‘receiver’ collects the rents until things are paid back. This tactic has never been applied to a vacant building. Thankfully we have an excellent attorney, and the status of ‘being occupied’ is no longer de facto.”