Demolition Alert 17: Vacant Buildings in Lewiston, Maine

Picture of Lewiston, Maine

Lewiston, Maine

This Demolition Alert is a bit different from previous entries. It does not pertain to a single building, but rather to an entire class of buildings–vacant buildings.

According to the Sun Journal, the city of Lewiston, Maine has declared war on their vacant buildings and has set aside funds to tear them down:

Ken Tubbs was looking for a good investment, and back in 2001, real estate seemed like a pretty good idea.

Lewiston seemed like a great place to start.

“I figured, if you buy a piece of income property and you get it full, it’s going to pay for itself,” Tubbs said. “Then, down the road, you sell it and you make a little bit of profit.”

But that’s not the way it turned out. Unable to pay the mortgage and other bills for his 305 Bates St. apartment building, Tubbs walked away from the property. The city condemned it in October 2009. And on March 20, the City Council decided to take down the building.

It’s a shame, Tubbs said, because it was a good building at one time.

“It was straight, too, for a building that old,” he said. “It’s amazing how the people who built those buildings, back in the day, built them on those hills with brick and stone foundations. And they were straight as can be.”

Demolition is the city’s last tool for dealing with failing buildings and a rising vacancy rate in the downtown.

And Lewiston has a lot of vacant apartment buildings in its downtown. High heating oil costs and other expenses, coupled with the burst housing bubble, have combined to leave 20 percent of the available housing units vacant.

“I think people who are well-connected with the downtown are surprised at how many vacancies we have,” said Gil Arsenault, Lewiston’s code and planning director.

It’s not the first time Lewiston has had high vacancies and abandoned buildings downtown — and has responded the same way. It happened after the savings and loan crisis of the early 1990s left a lot of vacant buildings.

Some buildings the city purchased outright, others the city took over when the owners stopped paying their property taxes. The rest were in bad enough shape that the city condemned them.

“It tends to hold down the market, when you have that kind of a vacancy rate,” Arsenault said. “That’s why we condemn buildings. If we were out of the picture, you might think you can just pay so much and put Band-Aids on a building and start charging rents. But if it’s condemned, you know the city is going to make you put a significant investment in, so you can’t pay $75,000 for that building. You might bargain down to $40,000, make those improvements and have a chance.”

Buildings that couldn’t attract buyers were torn down.

We are shocked by how incredibly short-sighted this demolition plan is. There is no mechanism for determining the value of the building in terms of aesthetics or its role in the surrounding community–just based on who defaults on their mortgage or doesn’t pay their property taxes. That’s pretty arbitrary.

Why hasn’t the city helped to create a not-for-profit development corporation that could hold onto key properties and raise money to fix them up? Then, they could sell the properties at the going market rate and use the proceeds to begin the process again. If done properly, it shouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime (except, perhaps, for initial seed money).

A policy of simply tearing down buildings could make things worse in the long-run as the cohesiveness and desirability of the neighborhood is reduced (a lost “sense of place”). The owners of surrounding buildings lose hope and they walk away from their buildings as well. How long can Lewiston even afford to tear down buildings in the face of a disappearing, literally, property tax base?

Of course, not every building can or should be saved; but to not have a process of assessing and saving the good from the bad is condemning Lewiston to a vicious cycle of demolition. We don’t see how this can end well . . .

Please add your thoughtful comment . . .

Jake, thanks for the comment and for keeping us honest 🙂 We certainly agree that there are quite a number of buildings that are “just not that nice,” especially the tenements. 

Our main concern is the process for deciding which buildings meet the wrecking ball which seems to be sorely lacking. Of course, this is based on one news story so if there is a process please let us know.

Jake Paris says:

I would tend to agree, but keep in mind that the downtown area is actually quite densely built for a new england small town. Many of these are pretty nice on the inside, but look like garbage on the outside. Others are really just not that nice.

There are many beautiful buildings in Lewiston, and the city and other developers have done some good things to keep them up, or get them renovated.  I just wanted to add these facts to your discussion to balance it out a bit.

Jake, thanks for the comment and for keeping us honest 🙂 We certainly agree that there are quite a number of buildings that are “just not that nice,” especially the tenements. 

Our main concern is the process for deciding which buildings meet the wrecking ball which seems to be sorely lacking. Of course, this is based on one news story so if there is a process please let us know.