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Editorial: Demolition is good; now let’s get building

April 12, 2019

When a city shrinks in population the way Huntington has the past few decades, a lot of buildings will become vacant, then dilapidated, then dangerous. It’s a problem faced by many cities of many sizes. In recent years Huntington has taken the initiative in removing these hazards, and work is progressing well.

With 25 percent of the year behind us, the city is already 36 percent of its way toward accomplishing its goal of demolishing 100 dilapidated structures this year.

Monday night, Scott Lemley, director of planning and development for the city, told City Council members that some of the 100 houses on the city’s list for demolition had been targeted for cleanup since 2009.

Demolition averages about $6,380 per structure, Lemley said. The city has spent about $229,934 of the money it has set aside for demolition, Lemley said. More than $400,000 has been collected from private donations, he said.

A few years ago, more than 400 structures were on the demolition list. That had been reduced to about 189 at the beginning of this year. That would bring the list to fewer than 100 buildings, “which is a very manageable number,” Lemley said.

Putting a building on the demolition list is not easy, and considering the fact we’re talking about private property, it shouldn’t be. Once the city identifies a structure that needs to be demolished, the city must notify the owner. Given the number of absentee property owners, that’s not always easy. The city’s Unsafe Building Commission must examine the property and determine that it needs to be demolished. Once approved, the commission determines the urgency for that particular property’s demolition. The property is then referred to the contractor the city has hired to perform the demolition work.

As complicated as this process is, it’s not the hard part. The hard part is finding new uses for the properties that become vacant. Until the city’s population decline reverses or at least levels off, these lots will remain vacant. A lot with a house meeting building codes is better than a vacant lot, and a vacant lot is much better than one with a dilapidated house.

Using the broken window principle of urban development, it’s safe to say few people will invest their housing money in a neighborhood full of vacant and dilapidated structures. Each house that’s torn down gives people another reason to consider buying or building a home in Huntington, and that’s a goal worth pursuing.

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Speaking of tearing down vacant and dilapidated structures, the former UpTowner Inn is coming down. Demolition work began this week on what was most recently known as the Flats on 4th, which was privately owned student housing near the Marshall University campus.

The building began as a hotel and was later converted to student apartments. A fire in April 2016 forced its closing. Since then it has been a home for squatters and drug users. AB Contracting of Point Pleasant, W.Va., owns the building and has not announced its intentions for future use or development of the site.

This will be an interesting challenge for Huntington. It’s a good location between Marshall and the core downtown area. Theoretically it should be a prime site for redevelopment, but the question is finding a productive use for the property other than as a parking lot. What happens at this site could say a lot about how desirable downtown Huntington is for developing real estate.