Two historically significant downtown Saratoga Springs houses were spared the wrecking ball last week. Now it’s time, at long last, to prevent their continued deterioration.
You can’t miss 65 and adjacent 69 Phila St., long-vacant sore thumbs with the bold red X signifying they’re too dangerous for fire department to go inside.
Last week – almost 11 months after being cited for failing to remedy property maintenance violations and years of intentional neglect — the owners finally appeared before the city’s Design Review Commission for permission to demolish the buildings. They unexpectedly pulled their application for 69 Phila, saying they have a buyer who will rehabilitate it. The commission clearly showed how the owners overwhelmingly failed to meet the reasonable criteria for demolition or 65, and would have concluded the same for 69 had that application not been pulled.
So now what?
A City Court conference is scheduled for Tuesday, a continuation of the case initiated last year. This is by no means the first time the city has tried — unsuccessfully and, frankly, not very forcefully – to get these owners to comply with code. However, this can be the time when real progress begins.
The next immediate step could be to require the owners to secure a bond to cover the cost of repairs necessary to preserve the integrity of both structures, with firm deadlines for compliance. There must be severe, daily fines for non-compliance.
Or, better still, let’s jump to this option: The court could authorize an entity to correct the building code violations. This court-appointed receiver would pay for the work and petition the court to be repaid through a lien on the property. This and more relevant details are explained in a Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation letter to the judge filed with the Design Review Commission.
That, it seems, is the surest route to accomplish the key goals: end the deterioration, restore the properties, and prevent the owners from being financially rewarded for their intentional neglect.
Both houses had seen better days when Helen and Case Simpson bought 69 Phila in 1995 and next door’s 65 Phila in 2002. Still, the owners are not novices in buying, selling and, sometimes, fixing up properties for sale or rental. Legal and ethical responsibilities of ownership in a historic district were essentially ignored, and opportunities for assistance to rehabilitate or sell the properties squandered, even after the city’s 2013 adoption of laws governing vacant property.
In recent years, the city increased code enforcement staff and fees regarding vacant structures. Happily, several historic properties have been saved and rehabilitated. Still, the code enforcers have lots to do.
What will become of 65 and 69 Phila St.? Now is the chance to send a message — to everyone — that demolition by neglect will not be tolerated in Saratoga Springs.
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