City condemned corner property June 1
A downtown Burlington building has been condemned by the city's Inspection's Department after more than a decade of complaints and trouble for a neighbor.
There is uncertainty about the property's future, and it could be demolished, but its owner says he plans to repair the building.
The building at 135 W. Davis St. has been around since the 1930s, according to the city, and has been passed from owner to owner since that time. After a Subway restaurant there closed in the early 2000s, the building was left to deteriorate for more than a decade before Jim Upchurch bought it under a tax foreclosure.
Upchurch, who also owns Wings to Go on South Church Street, took possession of the building in December 2016. He told the Times-News he plans to make the upstairs level a luxury apartment and the downstairs level either an office or retail space. The building, which is zoned B3, would allow for that type of design.
“With a new owner, there is some optimism of, ‘Hey, maybe something is going to get done,’” said Nolan Kirkman, Burlington's director of development and technical service.
Kirkman explained the city typically tries to give a new owner time to assess the property and begin changes before interceding and condemning it.
“We need to give a new owner some time to hopefully do something with the building because, once we start a condemnation process, the wheels are turning. We could end up through that condemnation process with a demolished building,” Kirkman said.
After a year passed with no major improvements, the city asked Upchurch to meet April 10. At that meeting, Kirkman and Inspections Director Ray Rice shared their increasing concerns about the building and that they needed to see some progress. Kirkman said Upchurch pulled an electrical permit to get temporary electrical service, with which Upchurch concurred, but after another month and a half of no major renovations, the city stepped in again and condemned the two-story historic building June 1 after inspecting it.
“It has been almost a year and a half, and we are not seeing the action that we were hoping for,” Kirkman said. “We feel like we have given him a sufficient amount of time to get some things together to move on the property.”
Kirkman added that the city also had received several complaints about the building from the Burlington Downtown Corp. and through Burlington Connected, an online forum run by the city.
“‘You can see the deterioration in the building,’ is the biggest point people were seeing,” Kirkman said. “Everybody wants the downtown to look nice.”
Reasons for the condemnation, which are listed on a sign on the building’s front door, include the “integrity of the first floor system is compromised” and “roof rafters decay, leaking roof.”
Upchurch said he didn’t have any thoughts on the condemnation and didn’t know fixing the building was a pressing issue.
“I didn’t know it was such a pressing issue until recently,” Upchurch said. “Granted, if somebody could have picked up a phone and called me, we probably could have worked this out a little easier than the way it is going right now.”
Upchurch said the building’s deterioration is not a secret or mystery.
“It is in horrible shape. We knew that from the beginning,” Upchurch said. “I don’t know why it is such a hot topic now, but it is OK.”
Kirkman said it is not the city’s intent to see the historic building demolished and that they city hopes Upchurch can turn the condemnation process around by taking prompt action.
“The hope is that with working with the owner and seeing what his plan is that he takes corrective steps to get the building back up to code,” said Rachel Kelly, director of public policy. “I don’t think anyone’s goal is to see a historic building downtown go down.”
Kirkman said unsafe conditions in the building, such as the leaking roof and unstable floor, need to be addressed before the city can stop the condemnation process.
If Upchurch does not address those problems, the city then would hold a hearing with Upchurch and Rice.
At that potential hearing, Rice would either specify the needed repairs or declare a demolition order with a specific timeline, which usually prompts the owner to counter with a deadline for some repairs to avoid demolition, Kirkman said.
“If that doesn’t engage the property owner into taking action, it could end up with a demolition order,” Kirkman said.
Another possibility would be that Upchurch could sell the building.
Rice said he would not set up a hearing for Upchurch as long as he showed progress.
“Once his progress stops, then we will have to set him up for a hearing and give him a set amount of time to have something done,” Rice said.
Upchurch said he will take care of the issues at hand, including the leaky roof and caved floors.
“We will take care of it, absolutely,” Upchurch said.
Upchurch said he had already talked to Rice about putting a dumpster out front so he could begin removing the carpet and other items.
“I am in a pickle now, I guess, where I am going to have to do some kind of temporary repair before we do — our plans are to gut the whole building down to the four brick walls and rebuild it from the inside out. That is the ultimate goal,” Upchurch said.
Rice said Upchurch is working on getting temporary power to the building and that they are waiting on Duke Energy. Rice added that Upchurch also is looking for someone to complete an asbestos assessment.
“It looks like he is beginning to move to try and get something done on it,” Rice said. “It looks like he has been trying to get moving on the project.”
Downtown Barber Shop
However, even with all these possibilities, there is another concern with the building: It has caused numerous troubles for its next door neighbor, the Downtown Barber Shop and owner Danny Walden.
Walden, who has been cutting hair for almost 20 years and became owner of the shop in 2006, claims he has been trying to address the building’s decay for more than a decade and could find only roadblocks.
“Nobody would assume responsibility,” Walden said. “For a decade, I tried to address the problem as it got worse.”
Kirkman explained there were several challenges during the decade that prevented the city from doing anything with the property.
“The county had a foreclosure action on it, there were state and federal tax liens, bankruptcy filings,” Kirkman said. “Those things, in terms of past efforts, certainly created some challenges for the city to be able to move forward.”
After Upchurch, who is a customer of Walden’s, purchased the building, Walden, much like the city, said he was thrilled finally to see a change.
The excitement didn’t last long.
Shortly after the purchase, Walden said, the roof caved in and water began seeping through the wall, which damaged Walden’s walls and floors on the upper floor, and the ceiling and bathroom on the lower floor.
“That second floor is a little higher than mine over there, so when it took in water and it had standing water, it bled through the wall, which caused a little bit of damage,” Walden said. “I can’t have new little kids coming in here when it looks like there is a two-story meth lab inside it.”
Upchurch said he immediately fixed the roof with a temporary repair, which he admitted could be done again, and asked Walden if he has experienced any more leaks.
“This has been months ago,” Upchurch said. “We haven’t talked a whole lot lately. I told him I would do what was right to take care of the damage that it did from then but I can’t be held responsible for — I didn’t own it 10 years ago so I am not responsible for damages from 10 years ago.”
Walden claimed he approached Upchurch about repairing the damages and was told that Upchurch would claim responsibility for the repairs. However, Walden claimed after he gave Upchurch estimates on repairing the damages, Upchurch refused to pay, saying the estimates were too high.
Upchurch said he did not want to be taken advantage of, and that he would not back down if he felt like he was being taken advantage of.
“There were some items on the quotes that were given to me that are so far off, so far off,” Upchurch said.
Walden says he cannot make any repairs to his building until Upchurch’s building is repaired.
“I can’t do anything until we have a resolution,” Walden said.
Upchurch admitted that he and Walden have “butted heads” a few times but that he continues to say that he will do the right thing as long as he is not taken advantage of.
Kirkman said he would be glad to speak with Walden about his complaints over the last 10 years and address those issues.
No matter the barriers, Walden said, he is still optimistic and hopes for the best.
“I am very excited about the future and about this street if [Upchurch] does half of what he has said he intends to do,” Walden said. “I am going to say that I am optimistic about it, but I do have some damages here, and I have been overlooked, and I do have estimates, and this has been an ongoing problem.”
Reporter Kate Croxton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-506-3078. Follow her on Twitter at @katecroxtonBTN.