Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cincinnati Urban Conservators section 106 Review files lacked proper documentation

Lack of documentation", was the conclusion of an August 12, 2010 letter from Justin Cook , OHPO history review manager to Larry Harris , the urban conservator of the City of Cincinnati. This is just the latest in an ongoing battle between Knox Hill who wants to preserve their neighborhood and the Cincinnati City Vacant Building task force that seems intent on bulldozing it. Knox Hill took the extraordinary step of filing a citizens complaint with HUD against the city for failure to conduct proper section 106 reviews and potential violation of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Knox Hill Neighborhood Association received a cc of the OHPO response letter sent to the Urban Conservator. The response from OHPO comes from Knox Hill Neighborhood Association that raised the issue of proper determination concerning 1853 Knox Street. The neighborhood submitted documentation regarding section 106 review and the Urban Conservator found the property ineligible under section 106 review. Knox Hill had complained that the Urban Conservator fails to respond to the associations concerns and documentation and asked for OHPO review of the case file.

In the letter Mr. Cook reaches the conclusion that while Mr. Harris has a sufficient understanding of how to evaluate a property, however, he notes that:

"Unfortunately the project file contains no information about properties in the neighborhood other than 1853 Knox street. There are no photographs of nearby houses or streetscapes and no mapping of the neighborhood that discusses the integrity of individual properties (e.g. a baseline analysis that documents that the majority of the buildings have been significantly altered). Your letter states that you made a site visit to the area and observed conditions that the house at 1853 Knox Street is not with an eligible historic district, but documentation in the project file focuses exclusively on single property."

The project file did contain a May 3, 2010 email from Knox Hill Neighborhood Association expressing concern about the proposed demolition at 1853 Knox and the email contends that

'Demolition of this property makes no sense because the building has no structural issues and has not been the subject of numerous police runs"

Those are some of the criteria the city applies to determine if a property is "blighted". Knox Hill has contended the city is ignoring that criteria and simply putting houses on the demo list in order to insure the city receives more Federal funding, a portion of which goes for "administrative costs".

As one Knox Hill board member put it,

"This city is 'addicted' to federal funding to help offset their employee payroll costs but senseless demolition, just for demolition sake, is not the way to address the payment of city staff".

The city demoed over 160 properties in 2009, 40 of those properties were in N&S Fairmount. Knox Hill believes that is a disproportionately high number and maintains that city demolitions, combined with increased issuance of VBML orders by overworked inspectors, have resulted in "governmental redlining" of economically disadvantaged Urban neighborhoods and has made it difficult, if not impossible for residents to obtain financing to maintain their homes and insurance at reasonable rates.

The emailed documentation Knox Hill provided to the Urban Conservator, as part of 106 review concerns, also contained a description of the house at 1853 Knox and emphasised its high level of material and design while acknowledging it is a typical "shotgun townhouse" that was commonly built in Cincinnati circa 1880-1885. In short the email did not contend the building was individually eligible for the National register, but stated that it was a contributing resource within an eligible historic district.

Knox Hill is working on preparation of its own historic building inventory which it intend to submit to OHPO for the state building list. Several other neighborhoods area also working on the same thing since the city current building inventory is incomplete and misses many contributing structures, clusters and potential individually eligible homes.

In the letter Mr Cook Noted:

"I certainly encourage the city to consider data and analysis produced by the Knox Hill Neighborhood Association's survey once it becomes available".

He concluded that he believed that the city made a 'good faith' effort to identify properties required under 36CFR Section 800.4 and stipulation IV C.1 of the programmatic agreement but he noted that:

"However, the project file needs to be augmented to include additional information that pertains to the neighborhood as a whole not just 1853 Knox."

Based on the fact the project file compiled by the Urban conservator may not be complete. Knox Hill emailed Ed Cunningham, the division manager of property code enforcement division, posing the following:

"So our question, and I am sure the question other neighborhood leaders are asking, "If your department and the nuisance hearing board are reaching conclusion and accepting the recommendation by Mr. Harris regarding demos,(for section 106 review), when it is obvious that; while Mr. Harris does make a 'good faith' effort at performing his duties as Urban Conservator, he is failing to provide adequate documentation to support his position. That lack of documentation is critical should a property owner whose property was demolished chooses to challenge the city in a court of law and/or file a complaint with the United States Office of Inspector General over the use of federal dollars when proper 106 review did not take place. What is the "official position' of your department at this point regarding continued demolition activity when it appears you are relying on incomplete data, and can we reasonably assume you will stop demolition activity on property older than 50 years old, until such time as we are all sure that Mr. Harris is producing complete project files that will stand up to scrutiny?"

Mr Cunningham response was that

Thank you for writing. I have not seen the latest response from the State. I do know the Law Department has been working with the Planning Department and others on the 106 review process. I will see where the City is with the review and if the latest information impacts our processes.

So Knox Hill and other Preservationists and community leaders must wait while property that may not have had proper section 106 review and inadequate project files, continues to be demolished using taxpayer dollars.

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