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City targets commercial side of urban blight

City targets commercial side of urban blight

Once a thriving restaurant where former President Bill Clinton dined, the old Sutton Place at 70 E. Broadway has sat empty for years, as quiet as the cemetery behind the building.

Littered with debris and frequented by homeless men looking for a good night’s sleep, the property across from Lifestyles Furniture is an example of what the Columbia Community Planning and Development Commission calls a “blighting influence on adjacent neighborhoods.”

“Look, something needs to be done with this,” commission chairman David Johnston said as he pointed to the overgrown weeds surrounding the property. “The whole thing is like a return to nature here.”

Commission members drove around the central city area recently and counted at least 20 vacant, deteriorating commercial properties. At the last City Council meeting, the commission recommended a way for the city to address the problem through an amendment to the Consolidated Plan, which already addresses residential properties in similar condition.

The amendment would expand an existing policy that allows the neighborhood response team to investigate residential properties and ensure that the property owners take steps toward tenancy and rehabilitation of their properties. The policy allows Community Development Block Grant funding and other resources to be directed at targeted properties.

Johnston said the same actions should be taken toward commercial properties, which currently do not generate sales tax revenue that help pay for the cost of infrastructure and services for those properties.

Johnston said properties such as the old Sutton Place, the former Osco Drug Store on Providence Road and more than a dozen others are in need of rehabilitation and can directly affect the economic prosperity of the city.

If not addressed, these properties can bring down the property values of the neighborhoods and make downtown less appealing to shoppers and tourists, he said.

Pat Kelley, the 1st Ward commissioner, said they can also create a safety concern for nearby residents.

“If a place looks like crime is happening, it’s more likely to happen,” she said.

Donald Woods, an Ashland resident, said he sold his house at 4714 Rice Road in 1995 because he was concerned with the drop in property values and his safety. Woods lived across the street from the Casey’s store where a triple-murder took place in January 1994. He said there were safety concerns long before the murders happened and long after Casey’s was shut down, left vacant and attracting loiterers.

“They just gutted the building and left it there,” he said. “I don’t know why they didn’t just tear it down.”

Kelley said it makes sense to reuse some buildings when possible, and reuse of lots in the central city should be encouraged.

She said the 1st Ward in particular has become concerned about the lack of business tenancy in the area as construction expands outward from the central city.

“If we have all these properties here, why not use them?” she said.

Johnston said the Corner Store property at the intersection of Wilkes Boulevard and Rangeline Street, which inspired the proposed amendment, is a great example of reusing a vacant and/or dilapidated commercial property to benefit the community.

The property, which was left vacant for years, was recently rehabilitated and renovated as a notable historic property, which will become a center for art, theater, learning and community outreach.

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