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How the sale of one derelict Allentown house offers hope for preserving others

How the sale of one derelict Allentown house offers hope for preserving others

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40 Cottage

40 Cottage St., in Allentown.

A new city partnership with preservationists – designed to tackle neglected and deteriorating properties that are at risk of demolition – has scored its first victory in a battle with owners who won't fix them on their own.

Officials said an Allentown property with a two-story pink double and a separate cottage in the rear is going up for sale this week, after Preservation Buffalo Niagara undertook a series of emergency repairs to stabilize the structure and save it from potential collapse.

City officials and preservationists say the successful solution could set a new precedent for dealing with other negligent owners and neglected properties, particularly in the city's historic districts, such as Cobblestone, Hamlin Park, Allentown and Broadway-Fillmore.

“For too long, when property owners refused to correct structural issues endangering historic properties and neighbors, the only official answer was demolition," said PBN Executive Director Jessie Fisher. "But the loss of historic fabric diminishes the value of adjacent properties and the law does allow alternatives.”

Not only can the effort save legacy houses and protect neighbors, but it also gives new life to structures that can become home for someone else. And it's a warning to landlords.

"Property owners must acknowledge their responsibility to be good stewards of their parcels and good neighbors to the larger community," said Common Council Member Mitchell Nowakowski, whose district includes the 4,028-square-foot property at 40 Cottage St., which dates to 1900. "I know this program can make a difference at the neighborhood level to save other all-but abandoned buildings.”

The Preservation Receivership Program was developed over the last three years and unveiled last year, through coordination between PBN, the city, the Housing Court and Nowakowski.

It gives the court another option in place of emergency demolition when a historic property falls into such disrepair that it poses a danger for neighbors, but the owner either cannot or will not make the necessary repairs – even when ordered to do so.

Instead, the judge can appoint a receiver organization to make the repairs and place a lien on the property, which must be repaid by the owner.

If the lien is not repaid within a reasonable amount of time, the receiver will have the right to foreclose and sell the property to get reimbursed.

“It’s great that everyone could come together to see the big picture and find a unique solution to the problems," said Jim Comerford, commissioner of the Department of Permits and Inspections.

Buffalo Housing Court Judge Patrick Carney authorized the work on the Cottage Street property by the preservation group under a special receivership in January, and then ordered a foreclosure sale when the absentee landlord failed to repay a $16,000 lien on the property equal to the costs.

The three-unit property is now being marketed for purchase at $129,000 by Kristan Anderson of Gurney Becker & Bourne, with cash bids due by 5 p.m. Thursday.

That gives the organization time to vet potential buyers, to ensure they have the financial resources to buy and invest in the property, which must be purchased "as-is." Officials prefer an owner-occupied buyer, but expect many offers, given the high-demand neighborhood.

"There has been a lot of interest already, so we just didn't want to drag this process out for the neighbors," Fisher said.

The Cottage Street property is one of five owned by Charles J. Dobucki in the Allentown and West Village districts that have been vacant and neglected for years. He's been dragged into Housing Court, fined and even jailed, and the court had an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

But he's remained current on his taxes and fines, so the city couldn't seize the property through traditional foreclosure, nor was there rental income coming in to cover repair costs.

The stabilization work at 40 Cottage involved the rear structure, including repairing a large hole in the roof, as well as other repairs to the front roof and porch, and replacement of missing sections of gutter, Fisher said. Workers also boarded up the buildings and maintained the lawn.

The preservation group – which did not take title to the property – will use the sale proceeds to replenish its revolving loan fund, which paid for the repairs under the court's directive.

Any sale proceeds over the $16,000 lien will be held in escrow for Dobucki, Fisher said, but noted that the court has tried unsuccessfully to serve him with papers both here and on Cape Cod, where he reportedly moved, and the properties have been marked by the city as abandoned.

"Mr. Dobucki has not been in contact with anyone or the courts, at his refusal," Nowakowski said. "Mr. Dobucki has been an unscrupulous slumlord for decades in Allentown."

Moving forward, Fisher said the program could be used on other properties in the city, including 110 South Park Ave., which she termed "one of the most egregious current examples."

That's a 170-year-old complex of buildings – owned by Darryl Carr of Bowmansville – that date to 1852 and once housed the Mugridge Steam Bakery and a blacksmith shop. Carr has been repeatedly cited and fined by Housing Court for neglecting the buildings, which are crumbling. He has previously said he intends to demolish them and build a 55-story high-rise project dubbed Unity Tower, but has not submitted any plans.

"There are perennial properties in dire need of this program," Nowakowski said. "It is my full intention that this case be a warning shot to other out-of-town landlords."

But Preservation Buffalo Niagara can't do it unilaterally. Rather, Fisher said, the process has to be started by the city's corporation counsel – the city attorney – so "the city has to determine what they are willing to do and when they want to use the tool."

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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