The First Of a Two-Part Series
The ground-shaking thud that woke Pat Stewart up at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 15 "sounded at first like a loud thunder," she says. "It was an unusual sound, I would say." Thinking maybe it was a car crash on Franklin Street, Stewart peered through the window that overlooked the street but saw nothing. Then she looked out her back window.
"There were bricks everywhere," Stewart says.
A house had crashed. The two-story side wall of 2016 W. Franklin St. had buried the alley and four small backyards on the 500 block of North Pulaski Street under an avalanche of bricks and rotten timber.
Stewart says she grabbed a flashlight and rushed outside in the cold wind to warn off traffic. "I wanted to let people know coming down the Franklin Street side," she says. "One woman I told said, `Thanks, you saved my life because I was speeding.'"
Police and fire officials arrived within minutes, but Stewart, whose home had lost power, stood by. "It was almost like a whole day of chaos," she says. "It was like World War II, because bricks were tumbled in four yards." The avalanche buried chain-link fences, concrete patios, flower pots, and a steel awning on the back of one house, Stewart says. "They were really blessed," she says of her neighbors, "really blessed that nobody was out that early in the morning."
A few days later, Stewart spotted a city inspector in the alley, looking for code violations in the occupied homes while a city contractor cleaned up the rubble left from the house that had collapsed, which was owned by the city of Baltimore.
"I said, `We've been calling in on this house for years--it's got no roof, no windows, and a strong wind will knock it down,'" Stewart recalls. "[The inspector] said--and her supervisor was with her--she says, `It's on the list.'"
Indeed, it was.
The house at 2016 Franklin had been on the city's list of buildings condemned and recommended for demolition for six years, 11 months, and 14 days. And it had lots of company.
In fact, 2016 W. Franklin was one of eight buildings that collapsed in high winds that weekend in Baltimore--six of which had been condemned by city building code inspectors as unsafe and put on a list of buildings to be razed years before. Three of these long-condemned buildings were owned by the city. The unplanned toppling of eight buildings on Jan. 14 and 15, 2006 was an apparent record for most collapses over a weekend.
"This is a rare occurrence," says Jerome Dorich, director of construction and demolition for the city Department of Housing and Community Development. "Needless to say, it was an expensive weekend."
Dorich, who has been handling city demolitions since 1993, says he was with his daughter, browsing a museum on Saturday afternoon, when he took the initial call about one of the early collapses. Then the calls kept coming. "Every 10 minutes," he says, "it seemed like I was getting a phone call about a collapse."
Dozens of buildings fall each year in the city, most of them in neglected neighborhoods where low-income people live. Those buildings--often long-abandoned, nearly a fifth of them city-owned--are just one more mortal danger endured by Baltimore's poor.
But the poor are not the only Baltimoreans threatened by building collapse. The real estate boom on the waterfront has brought the same hazard to people who live in rowhouses worth half a million dollars or more. In the past three years, more than a dozen buildings have collapsed in Federal Hill, Fells Point, and Canton. Each one crumbled to the ground after its owner tried to dig out the basement to make more living space.
Although Baltimore's building collapses seldom make the news (beyond a gawker report on TV), a review of the past three years of city-directed emergency demolitions and a close examination of records of more than 20 recent collapses reveals two patterns: First, the city has neglected its own decrepit buildings and fallen far behind in its demolition list, leaving thousands of Baltimoreans like Pat Stewart vulnerable to injury and property damage from sudden building collapses nearby. Second, the city's building permitting process is loose and clubby, allowing a small group of insiders--including a former city Housing Authority project manager with a felony record--to get away with shoddy work and multiple building collapses in well-off neighborhoods, endangering hundreds more.
Next week's story will focus on the permitting office and building collapses in some of Baltimore's more expensive neighborhoods. This week we take a closer look at the collapses in the city's more run-down areas and the contractors that demolish the remains.
In the northwest neighborhood of Central Park Heights, a building collapses and city inspectors don't hear about it for months--until another nearby building goes up in flames. On the east side, the city takes the chimney off a building in December, and returns a month later to demolish the rest of the structure. After a building collapses in Union Square, the city demolishes the remains and then rebuilds the shell and boards the windows.
Baltimore City's condemnation demolition policy appears poorly managed--if not entirely random--and it has been that way for decades.
Take the two-story, 13-foot-wide rowhouse at 1634 N. Port St., one of the eight buildings that collapsed over the weekend of Jan. 14-15. According to records in the city's housing demolition file, a city housing inspector first recommended it be torn down on Aug. 29, 1990, saying it was a candidate for collapse and a danger to public safety. Nearly nine years later, the city served its owner, Betty Lawrence, another condemnation notice and warned that the city would knock her unsafe building down if she did not seal it from junkies and repair it. Another letter went out in February of 2003. "This is to advise you that the above mentioned property, owned by you, is to be razed," the official letter read. "A bill covering services performed by the city will be forwarded to you shortly."
Still, nothing happened.
In the fall of 2005, according to property records, Lawrence sold the building to Manuella King of Aspen Hill, Mass., for $287. The transaction was not arms-length.
Last Dec. 14, citing a danger to the public, the city razed the chimney, at a cost of $2,764. The building collapsed a month later. Neither Lawrence nor King could be reached for comment.
In January 2006, P&J Contracting Co. Inc., working on behalf of the city, finished off 1634 N. Port, along with the house next door. The cost of the job at 1634 Port was $10,710.
The Port Street building was not the only one taken down piecemeal. The same thing happened at 3414 Dupont Ave. in Central Park Heights, which collapsed some time during 2004. A Dec. 1, 2004, memo from inspector Stanley Janczak to Dorich explains: "While at a fire scene today at 3418-3420 Dupont Avenue, the FD Chief pointed out a collapsed building at 3414 Dupont . . . The rear and side walls are almost completely down . . . it was in this condition before the fire."
The building was not unknown to city officials, however. In 2002, the city did an "emergency demolition" of the front porch and placed a $1,166 lien on the property to cover the cost. The inspector at the time had recommended that the whole building be demolished.
The inspectors are often overruled, says Dorich. "We do the minimum if we feel we can preserve the building longer by doing a partial demolition," he says. "But things happen. They can happen overnight."
On a late June afternoon Dorich seems overworked, his desk thickly tiled with manila folders, his phone ringing, and people visiting. Given that six of the eight buildings that keeled over on Jan. 14 and 15 had been condemned years earlier, he is asked why those dangerous conditions were allowed to continue until the buildings fell down.
Dorich pauses, blinking. He has been working steadily and has not yet been to lunch, though it's nearly 2 p.m. now and he's got a looming appointment. He answers the question with a non sequitur. "Basically," Dorich says, "they were condemned because they were unsafe, and we were condemning them aggressively." He thinks for a few more seconds. "We've recently reduced our condemnation database," he says, adding that Michael Braverman, his boss and the deputy commissioner for code enforcement, has been reassessing the city's condemnation list to see which buildings need to come down soonest and which can wait. Dorich says Braverman can answer the question authoritatively.
The triage system of partial, full, or no demolition is a budgetary constraint, Dorich suggests. "There's probably 2,000 buildings on the [demolition] list, and the cost to take them all down might be $15 million," he says. "A portion have to be reviewed by [the Department of] Asset Management because the city owns many of them."
According to a spreadsheet supplied under the state open records act, 17 percent of the buildings the city demolished between February 2003 and February 2006 were owned by the city itself.
"We're making operational changes every day," says Braverman, who took over his post about a year ago and says he immediately set about reducing the city's demolition list. "We literally went out and looked at 4,500 [buildings] a couple of months ago, and any one in imminent danger would have been referred for immediate demolition." While he is unsure how many buildings were taken down then, Braverman says those judged not to be in imminent danger of collapse were removed from the list and categorized as requiring reinspection either weekly or monthly. Today the list has been reduced by more than half, to about 2,000 buildings, he says. Most of the buildings had "no identifiable structural infirmity," he says, meaning that they are no longer candidates for demolition.
Braverman stresses over and over that the mere fact that an inspector condemned a building and referred it for demolition years ago does not mean it was thought to be ready to fall down. "If a building is referred for demolition," he says, "that's completely different from finding it in imminent danger of collapse." He says that in the 1990s buildings made the demolition list merely for being a blighting influence, or for other reasons. His new list differentiates, he says.
Braverman says that, "going forward," the city is managing the demolition list well and denies that budgetary constraints have played any role in the matter. Emergency demolitions, he says, are a bright spot in the department. "If an inspector finds a building in imminent danger of collapse tonight, that building will be taken down by tomorrow morning," he contends.
Asked why more than 30 buildings per year lately have fallen down before the city could demolish them, Braverman protests. "You are not an inspector, and you are not an engineer," he says. "What looks to your untrained eye like a building that is about to collapse may well not be."
Asked why eight buildings collapsed over one weekend in January, he blames the weather. "When there is extraordinary rain or extraordinary wind," Braverman says, "some of the extremely old buildings are going to come down."
Wind gusts of over 40 miles per hour were recorded during the storm on Jan. 14 and 15.
Baltimore's demolition policy seems to follow a wave pattern, with influxes of federal money and outbreaks of scandal. In the early 1970s, 48 people--including the director of the city Division of Construction and Building Maintenance--were convicted under federal RICO statutes in a demolition price-fixing scheme. In the early 1980s, federal money funded a program to cull unsalvageable houses from the city's stock. When the money dried up toward the end of the decade, the supply of buildings needing to be torn down increased dramatically. In the mid-1990s, city housing leaders embarked on another demolition spree, backed by $300 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The need was great, says Shawn Karimian, who coordinated the city's demolition program in the mid to late 1990s. "The way I remember it, almost every other night either myself or my assistant was looking at a collapse," Karimian says. He estimates that maybe 100 buildings collapsed during 1995, his first year on the job; by the time he left his job in 2000, only about "one every other month" fell down.
Along with a huge list of buildings to be demolished, Karimian and his 20 Department of Housing inspectors assembled what he calls the city's first database of condemned buildings, the forerunner of the one the city uses today.
But the $300 million demolition and rebuilding program was also a magnet for scandal: A federal HUD inspector general's report in September 2003 found that the city's then-housing director, Daniel Henson III, steered $221,764 in work to his sister. Henson also steered the Lexington Terrace housing project redevelopment to his former employer, Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, to which he was in debt. Henson was also involved in other business partnerships with several of the firm's principals, according to the inspector general's report.
Mismanagement and conflicts of interest wasted more than $28 million, the inspector general reported--and that was just for the two projects it examined.
An analysis published by The Sun in 1997, which criticized the high rate of demolitions at the time as "unfocused," found that P&J Contracting and another company, Phipps Construction, were getting more than 60 percent of the city's demolition work at that time. The average cost to demolish a rowhouse and repair adjacent walls in the 1994-'97 period was $15,000, The Sun found. P&J, owned by Pless Jones Sr., has made millions tearing down buildings in the city over the past two decades and has rewarded political candidates with contributions, even when the company was in bankruptcy in the early 1990s, The Sun found.
"It was costly," Karimian acknowledges of the period. "But if we didn't take [the buildings] down, they would have taken down the neighboring structures, or damaged them."
Henson left just before Martin O'Malley became mayor in 1999, but by then the city was already sharply ratcheting back its demolition program, going from more than 1,700 demolitions in 1998 to just a few hundred annually by 2000, according to Karimian.
The city currently demolishes about 360 buildings per year. In recent years, about 35 city demolitions each year have been done on an "emergency" basis after a fire or collapse. Emergency jobs begin with a built-in $2,500 "emergency fee," adding more than 10 percent to the cost. "That is actually a bargain," says Dorich.
But the cost for each demolition has risen sharply over the past two years--since the city stopped doing the work itself and contracted demolitions back to P&J.
Between 2003 and mid-'04, 56 emergency demolitions and associated repairs to adjacent properties cost the city an average of $19,309 each, according to figures supplied by city housing officials. At that time the demolitions were done by HABCo, the city's in-house demolition company, and the repairs to the walls of adjacent structures were contracted to P&J Contracting or Phipps Construction.
In 2004, the city disbanded HABCo and contracted its emergency demolitions to P&J, according to Dorich, because billing for each demolition by the in-house crew was creating a paperwork problem. To standardize the demolition costs and make billing easier, Dorich created a "uni-price contract based on the volume of the building, the thickness of the walls," he says.
Under the new plan, per-job emergency demolition costs suddenly increased by 23 percent--more than four times the rate of inflation. Since winning the contract in 2004, P&J has performed all of the city's emergency demolitions, subcontracting some of the work to Phipps. The 51 emergency demolitions done between July 2004 and February 2006 cost an average of $24,852--or $5,543 more than the average cost just 18 months before.
Phipps and its owner, Randy Phipps, has given at least $26,000 to state and local political campaigns since 1999, according to campaign finance records, including more than $3,500 to City Council President Sheila Dixon and $2,000 to Mayor Martin O'Malley.
P&J and its owner, Pless Jones Sr., have given more than $25,000 in political contributions in the same period, including more than $15,000 since the summer of 2003. P&J has given $1,500 to Dixon, $3,000 to state Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), $1,900 to City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D-6th), $2,000 to City Comptroller Joan Pratt, and at least $3,000 to O'Malley.
Although the company has operated for decades and has also won contracts from the Virginia Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Defense, Baltimore-based P&J does not have a business charter in Maryland, a search of state Department of Assessment and Taxation records shows.
"I don't have it--I don't know what to tell you," says Paul Anderson, chief legal review officer for the charter division of Assessment and Taxation. He allows that it is possible that P&J, which bills the city, responds to Occupational Safety and Health Administration violation notices, and gives to politicians under the name P&J Contracting Co. Inc., may be trading under a different name. "It's a misdemeanor to call yourself a corporation when you're not a corporation," Anderson says. "Flat out, if you call yourself `inc.' and you ain't an `inc.,' it's a misdemeanor."
Pless Jones Sr. laughs when told that his corporate charter could not be found. "It should be there," he says. "P&J Contracting Inc.--we're down there. We just sent some tax money." (Although an official at the comptroller's office promised to check into the matter on July 3, subsequent inquiries by City Paper went unanswered as of press time.)
Jones says the demolition price increase since his company won the bidding is due to the cost of dumping the debris in landfills. "Well, the city usually don't pay no tipping fees through HABCo," he says. "Most of the cost is the tipping fee." He says the fee ranges from $42 to $62 per ton, depending on the landfill used.
Braverman says the same, although he hedges. "I'm a big picture guy," he says. "You will find, I suspect, that there was something in the range of a hundred percent increase in dumping fees."
Karimian, the former city demolition official, confirms that the tipping fee was a large part of the demolition cost in his day, and that the city's landfill recently stopped accepting demolition debris. He says he got tipping fees removed from the bill paid by his department, since at the time it was one city government agency paying another. But Karimian adds that he doubts that landfill fees caused the recent spike in demolition costs
"That 23 percent jump is directly related to going from a government-run program to a private-run program," Karimian says. He acknowledges that no one thought to check P&J's business license back when he was running the program, but, he says, P&J always had a valid demolition license from the city.
Other cities do things differently. Philadelphia, with a reported 26,000 abandoned houses, knocks down about 1,000 structures each year, according to Eileen Evans, a deputy commissioner in Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections. Although the city razes about 300 of these buildings on an emergency basis, the old buildings seldom fall down before city crews can get to them. "Fortunately, we have not had any structures partially collapse in recent years due to the structural integrity of the building," Evans says.
That's because, after a spate of collapses in 2000, Philadelphia officials jumped on the problem just as Baltimore had done years earlier, creating a database of buildings in need of quick demolition. "Additionally and shortly thereafter, the Mayor's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative was developed and implemented, which focused on cataloging and removing blighted properties that evidenced a potential of collapse," Evans says.
That program cost $275 million, including $117 million just for demolition. The pace of demolitions has slowed since the 2000-'04 period, when Philly was razing 1,500 buildings per year, Evans says.
John Cole, Baltimore's superintendent of building inspection, estimates that a serious demolition program to knock out Baltimore's backlog would cost $33 million--a figure Karimian says is probably closer to the mark than Dorich's $15 million estimate. Whether $15 million or twice that, Dorich says the money just isn't in his budget, and so Baltimore's demolition program remains piecemeal and reactive. All around the city, thousands of properties targeted for demolition, many of them years ago, still stand. Until they don't.
"On Franklin Street there are other [buildings] with no roofs," reports Rosie Traynham, whose home at 505 N. Pulaski St. lost a metal awning in the avalanche from the south wall of 2016 W. Franklin. "You can see sunlight coming through. They say, `We'll get to it, we can't get to it right now.'"
In a way, Traynham and her Pulaski Street neighbors are lucky. They still have places to live.
Tenants at 102 S. Dean St. had to move out for six weeks, after 100 S. Dean fell down in the Jan. 15 wind storm.
The city has an ombudsman's office that relocates people from buildings damaged by fire, flood, or the collapse of neighboring buildings. Reggie Scriber, the city's deputy commissioner of community services, says he doesn't keep track of the reasons for the relocations, but he says his office spends about $365,000 per year on relocation services for "hundreds" of Baltimore residents.
Traynham says she and her neighbors have been calling the city regularly since the last collapse. They've complained not just about the other derelict buildings but also about the repairs--or lack thereof--on their own houses, damaged by the collapse of city-owned properties.
On May 7, John T. Castle of 2014 W. Franklin St. sent a letter to city building officials. As a result of the collapse of the city-owned building next door, Castle wrote, his back fence was "totally crushed and bricks to the front of the home were damaged." Castle noted that a city-paid crew attempted some repairs in April, but the mortar doesn't match his house and the front of his home where the repairs were made "has already begun to sink," according to the letter. He says a worker promised to get a supervisor to speak to him, but no supervisor ever showed up. "Someone needs to get to 2016 W. Franklin and complete the job," he wrote.
Three other neighbors have filed claims with the city for damages to their property, so far without results.
Traynham says a government official--she can't recall exactly who--suggested to her that, because her house and the others damaged by the collapse are not very valuable, neither they nor the city ought to spend much to repair them.
"It's hard to hear from a government official [that] you didn't pay much for the house so it's not worth fixing," she says. "It's because you live in a certain area, you don't think that we should be treated like everybody else."
Not every area is treated exactly like Traynham's west-side neighborhood.
If the rule in Baltimore these days is that demolition funds are scarce, the case of 4 S. Gilmor St. would appear to be the exception. In late 2004, the city placed a lien on the Union Square property for $7,326, for demolition-related costs. The structure, according to city records, was razed on Aug. 26, 2003, after a partial collapse.
In most cases, that's how demolitions work. The city then spends an additional $10,000 or more to shore up the neighboring walls, charging that to the owner of the deceased house as well. Not so this time. Union Square is one of Baltimore's "up and coming" neighborhoods, attracting Washington commuters to its charming near-downtown park. Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, dispatched furious e-mails to the city's demolition czars, explaining that the demolished house was a historic building and integral to the block. She suggested that the city rebuild the shell, claiming the feat could be accomplished for $30,000. Douglas Austin, then the Department of Housing's deputy commissioner of development, said no.
Kotarba persisted through the bureaucratic maze, refusing to take "no," "it's not our responsibility," "we have no budget," or any other variation of these for an answer. By December 2003, HABCo, the city's in-house demolition company, was rebuilding the home from the ground up. The house--really a boarded shell with a sound roof--was completed March 5, 2004.
By then the house already had a buyer. Rason Taru snapped it up in a tax sale for $7,702, according to tax records. Even before the city workers finished the shell, Taru hired neighborhood architects Manifold Design to help with the interior.
But before he could start on that, the city cited him for an improper arch over the front door, says David Lemmert, who, with wife Karen, ran Manifold Design from a building around the corner from the house until a recent move to Eutaw Street. The new facade did not match the others on the block because the front door was too low, Lemmert says. The city itself built it that way, but historic preservation officials wanted Taru to fix it. He tried to negotiate a solution, and city workers eventually returned and did the repair without informing the owner, Lemmert says.
Taru did much of the renovation work himself, says Lemmert. (Taru could not be reached for comment.)
The home is for sale now; the listing price is $410,000.
Next week: The story of a former city demolition engineer who specializes in basement dig-outs that collapse.