Neighbors keep wary eye on condemned rowhouse

Structure is not on city emergency list, despite requests

November 26, 1999|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

In the drug-troubled East Baltimore neighborhood locals call "Zombieland," residents trudge by 2417 E. Biddle St., a condemned rowhouse with a Formstone facade, assuming the boarded-up building is the least of their worries.

On weekdays, scores of grade-school children pass the building on their way to and from Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School around the corner. They sometimes play in the dirt and rubble surrounding it. On Sundays, about 100 worshipers skirt the property on their way to service across the street at Bibleway Missionary Baptist Church.

At first glance, the building looks safe enough, says the Rev. Nathaniel Womack, pastor of Bibleway, as he steps gingerly by the building, which is a few feet from his place of worship.

But a closer look, through a jagged hole in the exposed brick sidewall, shows that the second floor has collapsed onto the first. Much of the roof has caved in. The only thing keeping 2417 E. Biddle St. standing is its four walls, and they show large cracks.

"This thing is about to fall," said Womack, echoing a sense of trepidation about the structure felt by many in the neighborhood.

Womack said a violent winter storm, or even a large bus passing, could cause portions of the building to crash to the ground. "I hope and pray it doesn't come down on anyone, particularly kids. Somebody could easily die."

Twice-condemned house

City records show that Baltimore's housing department has condemned the building twice in the past 18 months, in May 1998 and in October. The Lakewood Chase Community Association, which represents the neighborhood, has been pushing to have the building destroyed as soon as possible, according to Donna Money, the association's director.

Despite this, the city doesn't have firm plans to demolish the building any time soon.

"We don't know when it's going to be taken down," said Zack Germroth, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, adding that his files show that 2417 E. Biddle St., one of about 10,000 abandoned homes in the city, is not on the housing department's emergency demolition list.

Because of budget constraints, the housing department has placed a temporary hold on demolition orders on buildings not on the emergency list, meaning no set timetable exists for taking down structures not on the list, Germroth said.

The emergency list, which has between 25 and 50 structures on it, consists of buildings city engineers believe are the most unsafe.

"Our engineers have recently looked at it," Germroth said. "And have not deemed it necessary to put on the emergency list. They did not see the likelihood of something falling down."

Some fear for children

That's certainly not what residents such as Venus Knox want to hear.

The 65-year-old grandmother lives next to the condemned structure, taking care of her two young grandchildren each day. Knox says because of the building's condition, she won't let her grandson C. J., 4, play in front of the rowhouse without close supervision. "I don't let him go out there unless he's right under my eye," she said. "That building scares me to death."

Knox said she first called the city to complain about the building in March, partly because rainwater would pool at the bottom of the open-air rowhouse and stream into her basement.

She showed a list of records in a loose-leaf binder, notes taken after talking with housing department inspectors.

"It doesn't feel too good," she said. "You can't get people to pay attention. Will they just do something before that thing falls?"

Said Beretha McCowan, as she walked her three grandchildren home from Rayner Browne Elementary School on a recent day: "We've got enough to be scared of in this neighborhood. Abandoned buildings falling down shouldn't be one of them. That's putting us all in danger, and we're in enough danger already."

Nearby buildings demolished

Last year, reports in The Sun documented the devastation heaped upon the streets surrounding the elementary school, and the role played by absentee property owners and slumlords. The reports detailed city and nonprofit efforts to condemn and demolish hundreds of properties in the area.

That effort is clearly visible today from south of East Biddle and Port streets, where large swaths of rubble and dirt mark scores of condemned rowhouses stood.

But it has not reached 2417 E. Biddle St. Records show the property is owned by Darold L. Holley, proprietor of H&H Realty in West Baltimore.

City records also show that H&H owes the city $19,266 in back property taxes, fines and other fees on the abandoned property. Holley did not return phone calls about the property, and he could not be found at his business address.

When work crews get to the rowhouse, it must be demolished by hand because a wrecking ball could severely damage Knox's rented property at 2415 E. Biddle St., said Germroth.

Knox's rowhouse was renovated late last year by its previous owner, Stanley Rochkind, whose portfolio of low-rent properties is among the largest of landlords in Baltimore.

Rochkind was forced by court order to pump thousands of dollars into Knox's rowhouse before he sold the building in February, bringing the building up to code.

Last year he told a Sun reporter that he had repeatedly tried to get the housing department to demolish 2417 E. Biddle because it was leaking water into his newly fixed rowhouse.

"We're going to have to keep our fingers crossed until it's demolished," said Womack, standing next to the structure. He looked up at a crack in the building and walked away quickly.

"I think we should move," he said. "You just never know."

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