Prosecuting dumpy properties

The most popular regular feature in The Bollard is, without a doubt, That’s My Dump!, in which we investigate derelict residential and commercial properties. And of all the faithful readers of that feature, I’m especially glad to have one in particular: Trish McAllister, an attorney who serves as the city of Portland’s “neighborhood prosecutor.”

The relatively new position was inspired by the “broken windows” theory of public safety, most notably advocated by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, which contends that public safety can be improved by aggressively addressing vandalism, litter and other symptoms of urban decay, like dumpy properties. Portland is, thankfully, a much cleaner and safer city than New York or Boston, but McAllister stays busy working with neighborhood leaders and business owners on a wide range of issues, from graffiti tags to panhandling in medians.

In this month’s issue of The Bollard, we present the first annual That’s My Dump! Five Year Reunion, in which original dump-hunter Patrick Banks looks back on the properties first profiled in this feature and provides updates on their current condition. McAllister recently joined Patrick, me, and Dan Bodoff, host and producer of The Bollard Podcast, to discuss the problems posed by derelict buildings.

Among many interesting insights McAllister shared is the fact that the city has very limited options to address blighted structures. A dump can be boarded up, shedding paint flakes like dandruff and rotting in a sea of weeds for years without being subject to legal action by the city. Only after a structure has deteriorated to the point where it’s in danger of falling down can municipal officials compel its demolition.

The first dump Banks wrote about to “taste the wrecking ball” met this criteria — a burnt-out corrugated metal shack on Custom House Wharf. Owner Ken McGowan had been tangling with City Hall over the condition of that structure and a couple others on the same side of the wharf, spaces formerly occupied by Boone’s Restaurant and The Comedy Connection, both of which were briefly posted against occupancy in 2007.

The dump on Custom House Wharf, circa March 2008. photo/The Fuge

The dump on Custom House Wharf, circa March 2008. photo/The Fuge

A few months after the shack was highlighted as our dump of the month, in early 2008, McGowan paid to have it torn down before the city did it and stuck him with the bill. Today the shack’s footprint is empty save for a couple parked vehicles, a stack of pallets and some plastic barrels. Waterfront zoning rules limit the types of businesses that can operate there to those that are marine-related. Given the state of the commercial fishing industry, don’t expect a new structure to be built there anytime soon.

In the summer of 2012, a burnt-out triple-decker apartment building on Walton Street, in the Back Cove neighborhood, was our featured dump, and McAllister took notice. Its owner, real estate broker Duncan MacDougall, was caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of an unresponsive insurance company and foot-dragging bankers.

McAllister said that in this case and others like it, the city is willing to be patient and wait for the property owner to resolve the issues delaying a building’s improvement. But given the dangerous condition of the Walton Street structure, not to mention its proximity to an elementary school, it had to be demolished sooner than later. To her dismay, after the building was knocked down and removed, McAllister said she received two angry messages from neighbors complaining about the empty lot left behind.

Some city ordinances and policies tend to prolong a property’s dumpy condition. Portland’s controversial “housing replacement” ordinance, which requires property owners who demolish residential units to either replace them or pay a hefty fee, kept dumps that Banks revisited this month on the East End and the West End standing for months or years longer than they otherwise would have, while their owners fought their obligations under the law — in those two cases, successfully. Historic preservation protections also often delay dump improvements.

The biggest factor, however, is money. Shortly after we started profiling dumps, the Great Recession hit and greatly dampened the demand for real estate, dumpy and otherwise. But the city’s own tight finances are also a factor. McAllister said the cost of pursuing legal action to get dumps cleaned up, and the city’s prospect of recouping that money, is a major consideration, as is the fact that she’s basically the only attorney working for the city on these issues.

When city councilors meet in the coming months to draft the next budget, they should make the hiring of a second neighborhood prosecutor a high priority. As our feature has shown over the past half decade, there’s no shortage of dumps in need of attention.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.