Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Historic Fairmount Church faces the Wrecking Ball

The Fairmount German Presbyterian Church was an anchor to the City's of Cincinnati German community of Fairmount in the late 1800's. the church started out as a small congregation of 44 members but grew over the years. The church was not a grand edifice but rather exemplified the German communities desire to worship in a more simpler church. The building has strong beamwork and a Gothic overtones and is fine architectural example of a small church.

The church was at the epicenter of a once vibrant German community that extended up Baltimore and Beekman. Houses everywhere, with small commercial buildings that once housed corner stores and deli's. Today that once vibrant German community is gone scattered to the winds. Blocks after blocks of vacant lots abound, a testamate to the city of Cincinnati's relentless demolition of the North Fairmount neighborhood over the last decade in the name of "Blight Abatement".

Unless something happens soon the anchor of the once vibrant German community in Fairmount, the Church at the corner of Liddell and Baltimore, will be lost forever, if the city has its way. The Fairmount German Presbyterian Church sits on the city demolition list, has been condemned and right now, only one man stands in their way, Rich Borthwick.

Borthwick bought the aging landmark a few years ago. For Borthwick, the building was perfect for his needs. He builds drums, not just any drums but tribal drums and he is a master craftsman and expert on the art. He is a teacher of this lost art and does community outreach to young people and operates the Heart of the Mind website http://www.theheartofthemind.com/

Borthwick sees the old church serving many purposes, not just a place for him to live, but a place to teach his craft, to mentor to young musicians, perhaps even as artist gallery space for emerging artists. He see's it as a focal point for the community again. Borthwick is a man of vision, but that vision is not shared by city inspectors who want the building demoed. The building does have issues and Bothwick is aware of that, but like many who have been swooped down on by city inspections, he has had nothing but an adversarial relationship with city inspections who made immediate demands he "fix things' on their timetable and when those demands could not be met by Borthwick the city slapped a condemn order on the building.

As Borthwick put it 'The city has done nothing but give me grief. I am low income but capable and able to do my own work ".

But Borthwick's vision for the historic building restoration and adaptive reuse has resulted in his being at odds with the court three times over the building and as he put it "I am a "criminal". I was on probation, and I have another court date Jan 14th."

Borthwick has even brought this issue to the city council but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Borthwick contacted me when he read on my blog that the Knox Hill Neighborhood Association was looking to hear from people who have had problems with the VBML and city inspections for a report we plan to make to the council in January or February on how the mis application of the VBML by city inspections have created a climate of dis-investment in areas that could be restored, and resulted in the loss of Millions of reinvestment dollars to Newport and Covington by people 'fed up' with city inspections and the VBML process.

The city, for what ever reason, wants him out of the building (for his own safety) and not staying there, but as anyone will tell you, if that property is empty it will be stripped in days. City inspections clearly lives in some "alternative universe" where they do not understand that in the real world 1.) You don't EVER leave a building like this unoccupied, 2.) Not everyone is made of money and can do things on the citys' timetable 3.) Demolition is NOT preferable to a vacant lot!

Borthwick is still working on the landmark and at the moment could use the services of a good heating contractor willing to donate some time, so he can get furnaces and ductwork installed. Like many who tackle old houses and historic buildings it always cost more than one ever thinks it will, as he put it 'I need some help installing the furnaces I have, and ducting. Help is good." Borthwick has been representing himself on his many hearings with the city and admits an attorney, if he could afford one, might have resulted in a better outcome at this point. 'I could really kick some booty if I had a lawyer". Like many lower income residents in Fairmount, having legal representation to fight city hall is just a dream at this point. He is too busy trying to raise money to fix his property,keep it secure and get the city off his back.

Every year people in Cincinnati lose their homes in poorer neighborhoods because they do not understand the city process, do not have the funds to complete the repairs as fast as the city wants, and cannot afford the high cost of Liability Insurance required under the VBML waiver process. Once a property has a VBML or Condemn order against it it is impossible to get bank financing, even if, they could somehow qualify. Most simply walk away from the property in frustration and the bulldozers arrive. In that process Cincinnati history is lost.

In most progressive cities, someone with vision like Borthwick would be welcomed by the city and the city would build on his vision and perhaps create an arts district in the area, thereby making the dozen or so vacant commercial buildings in the area more viable as artists spaces, or performing arts venues or antiques dealers. Bringing with that homeowners back into the neighborhood to restore the remarkable Italianates and Second Empires that are still left with their great views of Mill Creek Valley and Downtown. They would be offering facade frants, street repairs and better street lighting and signage. Perhaps help set up a Main Street program with the National Trust.http://www.preservationnation.org/main-street/ . Using Borthwick's vision as a base the area could be a tourist destination with shops and galleries. Empty buildings could be adaptively reused and once again a viable community could thrive there.

But clearly North Fairmount is on the "wrong side of the tracks" for that kind of use perhaps in the city's limited vision. Those kind of uses are only suited for Vine street or Pendleton Arts. Done by large developers with deep pockets. The city would rather continue with the relentless destruction of Fairmount and the entire west side and in the process deplete the tax base so we all wind up paying higher taxes.

It is called "redlining", although the city will claim they are just "enforcing the ordinance", but a broken window in Mt Adams won't result in a VBML like it routinely does in poorer city neighborhoods.

For a city that is in the midst of a financial crisis one would think this city would welcome people like Mr Borthwick, who have come to Cincinnati to restore a historic property here, rather than someplace else, but in typical Cincinnati fashion they push outsiders away and everyone loses. In this case, not only the Preservation Community but the Creative Community as well. One MUST ask the obvious question again, just what is the "hidden" agenda of city inspections? The bulldozer marched down Beekman this summer bulldozing years of history in the process, leaving vacant lots that will pay no taxes for decades to come. The city has its eye on 1.1 Million dollars in demo money next year. Can this historic structure possibly have a chance?

It can have a chance but it is up to us to say enough is enough. If it takes a grand jury investigation by the State AG's office, of city inspection practices , so be it. If it takes a federal audit of the way CDBG funds are being spent, without proper 106 review, then that may need to take place. If it takes a ballot initiative to get the VBML off the city code, we may just have to start over. But enough is enough!

This property is clearly historic and it deserves to be saved and we all should be concerned and we need to start asking HARD questions of our city council people as to why they sit idly by while city inspections drives investment in our community away, and does 'focused inspections" in poorer neighborhoods where people do not understand their property rights and cannot afford legal representation. Clearly city inspections could care less about the history of this city or it's architecture and picks and chooses what parts of their own ordinances they want to enforce, and the neighborhoods that they want to enforce in, I have already documented that as fact in several posts on my blog.

If you'd like to support or volunteer some time to help Mr Borthwick you can contact him via his website maybe by bringing the Preservation community and the creative arts community together we can reverse the "Blight=Bulldozer" mentality of city government!

If you are having problems with city inspections or know of someone who is, please email me at victiques@hotmail.com . If we shine enough light on this we may be able to get some real change.

(photos for this piece courtesy of Heart of the mind website)

No comments: