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Six months ago, city officials were on the verge of spending more than $100,000 to eliminate Azalealand, a decaying former flower shop and nursery in the heart of a southeast Lincoln neighborhood.

They were reluctant. The city isn’t in the business of demolishing private properties, even if they are deemed public health hazards.

But they were also running out of patience. The 3-acre site had long been the target of neighbor complaints and enforcement efforts, but the owner, Hitoshi “Tosh” Utsumi, wasn’t moving fast enough.

“He is a very honorable gentleman; he is very pleasant to deal with,” Chris Connolly, the chief assistant city attorney, said in early August. “But he makes promises that aren’t kept, and that’s a problem for us.”

But it’s apparently not a problem anymore. Utsumi has made enough progress to keep the city away from his property, and expects the demolition crew he hired to tear down the building this week. Demolition was supposed to start last week, but was delayed by weather.

“He appears to be finishing it up himself,” Connolly said Friday. “We had to pressure him to get it done, but he has responded appropriately.”

Utsumi’s parents started Azalealand in the 1940s, though the area near 37th Street and Prescott Avenue had already been an edge-of-town nursery and floral shop for decades. Utsumi closed it in 2010, and said last year the upkeep of the property — a 1-acre greenhouse, his parents’ home, the sprawling business building — got away from him.

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Neighbors complained of the eyesore in their backyards, but without a property-maintenance code for commercial buildings, the city couldn’t force Utsumi to take care of Azalealand. Then inspectors declared the buildings dangerous and structurally unsound, which gave them enforcement powers.

The city and Utsumi reached an agreement. If he didn’t demolish the buildings by specific deadlines, the city would do the job, place a lien on the property and sell it to recover its costs.

And that’s where the city was headed late last summer, until Utsumi made progress.

“The whole point of this is to get Mr. Utsumi to tear them down himself,” Connolly said. “We did not want to go in there and use city money, even though we thought we could recover it later on.”

Utsumi doesn’t yet know what he’ll do with the property after it’s cleared of his family’s former business, he said.

“It’s been a massive undertaking,” he said last week. “I have to get through one phase before I get to the next.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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