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HERITAGE HOUSE

by Jeff Sykes

Redevelopment plan won’t eliminate possible demolition

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

In the end, the Heritage House became the kind of place that simply must have been experienced to be understood.

The Greensboro police officers that went there everyday to investigate aggravated assaults that went down in the hallway understood it. The firefighters who waded through feces and darkness in responding to calls for service understood it. So, too, did the hundreds of people who called the place home through the end of July, when Greensboro officials, responding to a humanitarian crisis brought about by the failure of private market forces to regulate the quality of life in the 177- unit condo, condemned the building.

It was a far cry from those heady days when the building was a prominent hotel, one that even hosted the future president Ronald Reagan in its heyday in the mid-1970s. In mid-September the city’s planning board voted unanimously to declare the property blighted. That designation began a process that city planners believe could lead to the building’s demolition.

They won’t come outright and say it now. There has to be a process to determine a redevelopment plan. There has to be eminent domain purchase of the aforementioned 177 units from more than 65 separate owners, each capable of dragging the process out in appellate court for a very long time.

And there has to be a more detailed structural analysis, one much more thorough than the visual examination performed by SKA Consulting Engineers at the request of city planners when it was first shuttered. But that preliminary structural assessment was enough to make Hanna Cockburn, Greensboro’s long range and strategic planning manager, express doubts about the building’s viability.

At a meeting of the Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro last week, Cockburn gave the group an update on the Heritage House blight plight. She told commissioners how the planning board had voted unanimously to declare the property at 310 W. Meadowview Rd. blighted. How they had included the Meridian Events Center, which has a separate address but is nonetheless physically connected to the building, in the proposed redevelopment zone. Cockburn explained the impending six-month planning period in which city staff will conceptualize a redevelopment plan, present it at multiple public hearings, and develop a way to pay for the building being returned to “viable use.”

SKA Consulting Engineers will examine the building in detail, Cockburn said, and provide planning staff with “estimates for the upfit to determine whether there is a reasonable return on investment and explore options as far as what to do with the property.

“Should it be renovated and returned to some sort of residential component use? Should it be torn down, and that would those costs look like? That’s part of the redevelopment plan.”

Commission member Charles McQueary asked Cockburn to define “upfit” for Heritage House.

“Returning it to viable use,” Cockburn said. “What would that take?

What structural improvements would have to be made? What mechanical improvements?”

She briefly listed a few of the more notable challenges, the dysfunctional elevators serving the six-story building, the failure of the roof membrane in several places, allowing water to seep down, floor to floor, until it finds a resting spot.

“Having read all of the evidence in the structural report, I have grave concerns about returning it to use,” Cockburn said.

And with good reason. The details of the SKA Consulting report on their visual assessment performed July 10 are striking. The stairs would have to be replaced. The moisture coming down from the roof has caused corrosion of supports and braces holding the concrete slabs of the building together. Some of the concrete itself has deteriorated over time, exacerbated by a coating, ostensibly to protect against outside moisture, which has trapped in the moisture from roof leakage.

SKA engineers found individual units with standing water on the floor, caused by air conditioning units channeling condensate into the space rather than to the exterior. One unit had three-quarters of an inch of water on the floor, leaking through the ceiling of a third floor unit. In other areas, welds at connection plates and angles “do not appear to have been properly welded “¦ and have failed at some point in the past.” In the electrical room “all connection plates and angles showed signs of corrosion.”

That was just the inside. City crews provided a lift for SKA engineers to inspect parts of the exterior. After removing some of the coating, “spalling of the concrete and corrosion of the reinforcing steel was found at all locations where the coating was removed.”

Corrosion was found on vertical primary steel bars and secondary ties.

While not a death knell for the building, the inspector declined to mince words in his final recommendation.

“The severity of the distress was documented only at the select locations observed, but is believed to be representative throughout the facility at similar locations, with varying degrees of deterioration,” wrote Aaron Bopp. “Without proper remedial work, the corrosion will continue to progress to the point that the integrity of the structure could be compromised, at least at isolated locations.”

Bopp concluded that half of the visible concrete connections had failed or were not properly installed. He deemed that “a consistent, serious problem throughout the facility.”

In the end, the structural conditions paled in comparison to the level of filth and brazen criminality festering at Heritage House. City officials spent much of 2013 trying to remediate minimum housing code violations found during a 2012 mass inspection of the facility. But no amount of code enforcement can make up for lax owners who have no concern for the culture and living conditions that deteriorate in a free market free for all. From July 2013 to June 2014 city officials logged 518 calls for fire service and 1714 calls for police service.

Newly appointed Greensboro City Attorney Tom Carruthers summed up the environment that germinated along the darkened hallways of the often-vandalized common areas of the Heritage House in a summation to the planning board.

“We attempted to deal with it through our law enforcement resources and ultimately failed,” Carruthers said. “One of the systemic problems was, with a multi-owner condominium, it’s not like an apartment complex where you can obtain a right to enter each unit at one time. Because the homeowners association no longer command the respect of all the individual homeowners who were unable to work in their common self-interest, illegal activity was allowed to flourish in some of the units. That affected the culture of the entire residential structure of the building. It put mothers and their children and people who had physical infirmities and disabilities at risk.”

City officials moved the last remaining tenants out of the Heritage House, assisted by a coalition of community groups, on July 30. It will likely be early 2015 before a redevelopment plan is in place. !

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