Havelock’s seven-year headache is about to get a temporary fix, but city officials say there is little they can do to relieve all of the pain occupying a 3,000-square-foot problem property.
The city plans to seal the entire façade of the two-story structure at 6117 Havelock -- covering it with plywood or sheet metal from top to bottom -- to protect the public from falling bricks.
“We’re looking at some sort of a false wall in front of it,” said Chad Blahak, director of the city’s Building and Safety Department. “It still isn’t going to be pretty, but it would clear up the majority of the sidewalk.”
It’s not the city’s first attempt to shield pedestrians from the building. Workers built a wooden walkway nearly two years ago, but its collapse last week in a thunderstorm is emblematic of the problems that have plagued the storefront since 2009.
That’s when the city’s Urban Development Department launched a façade improvement program in Havelock, giving $400,000 in grants to about 30 neighborhood businesses -- including $16,400 to Maria Rico and her restaurant at 6117 Havelock Ave.
But the building was old, and contractors uncovered structural problems. So a year later, Urban Development gave Rico a second grant of more than $43,000, and two years after that, the city loaned her $20,000 more.
In the end, the city would spend nearly $80,000 trying to repair a building that today is worth $29,000. And it was close to loaning Rico $175,000 to finish the façade and pay for a new roof, but the mayor killed the deal at the last minute.
By then, the roof had already been installed. Cheever Construction had signed the contract with Rico but believed the city would back the $85,000 bill, company president Wes Oestreich has said.
The company filed claims against the city, which were rejected. It filed liens against the property, which went nowhere.
It still hasn’t been paid, Oestreich said, and it likely won’t.
Cheever Construction could try to sue Rico, but that would be a waste of money, he said.
“We would spend thousands of dollars to go through the efforts to go against her and, even if we got a judgment, what to do we get? Nada.”
Or it could try to sue the city, but that would be a waste of time.
“Our feeling is to let it go, chalk it up to an expensive lesson about working with the city. It’s like professional suicide to go against the city in something like that.”
So the building has remained in disrepair for years, its façade unfinished and unstable. Because of the possibility of bricks falling from the second story, the city declared the façade dangerous two years ago and ordered Rico to repair it or raze the building. Neither happened, and the city built the walkway.
The lack of action since has fueled frustration in the neighborhood. Other business owners have argued that city officials would never tolerate such an eyesore in other parts of Lincoln, like the Haymarket, or downtown.
Not true, said Chris Connolly, an assistant city attorney.
At this point, city inspectors don’t believe the building, as a whole, is dangerous -- thanks in part to the roof Cheever Construction installed, Connolly said.
The building is ugly, but ugly isn’t actionable.
“We certainly have other commercial buildings in poor shape, but since they’re not endangering the public, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.
It would be different if 6117 Havelock were a house. The city has a residential maintenance code, giving it legal tools to force homeowners to clean up problem properties. But it doesn’t have similar standards for commercial properties.
A commercial building must be deemed dangerous for the city to take action. And in Havelock, only the bricks appear to pose the danger, which is why the city built the walkway and now plans to cover the façade.
There’s a chance that could change, Connolly said. The city is trying to get its inspectors inside the building and, depending on what they find, they could deem the entire structure dangerous. But they haven’t been able to contact Rico, the owner, for permission to enter.
“We’re not sure where she’s at,” Connolly said. “She has not reached out to the city.”
The city has other options for getting inside. It’s trying to seek access from the family of the man who sold Rico the building, James Conroy of Conroy’s Bakery. And it could ask a judge for an inspection warrant, but it’s too premature to make that case, Connolly said.
In the meantime, the sidewalk remains closed after a July 7 storm blew the covered walkway into the street and onto a parked Toyota.
Blahak, the building and safety director, would like to get inspectors inside before covering up the facade, but the city might start the exterior work first.
“The long-term solution, I don’t have,” he said. “We’re basically trying to make it safe for the public there.”