North Adams taking a targeted approach to eliminating blight


Photo Gallery: Property targeted for demolition in North Adams

NORTH ADAMS -- City officials are hoping a new approach can help in solving an old problem: blight.

Mayor Richard Alcombright and his staff are aiming to contain run-down properties in otherwise blight-free areas of the city, after having some success with similar efforts in recent years.

"It's like a cancer," Alcombright said. "[You have to] get it early."

The city has a revolving list of about 20 to 25 properties it considers blight, according to Building Inspector William Meranti. Every year, using a portion of its federal Community Development Block Grant funds, the city demolishes between three and five of those buildings.

This year, the city hopes to step up its efforts in targeting specific properties.

"What happens in a neighborhood is if a house goes to hell, then another one goes, and then two more," Alcombright said. "Sometimes you'll find a neighborhood where you need to pull down that one selected piece of property that will ensure continued health in that neighborhood."

A building can take many paths that end in demolition, according to Meranti. A home can be condemned -- usually through a lengthy, legally complex process -- by the building department, or by the health department. By the time the city has the opportunity to demolish a home, it has long been vacant.

Homes on the city's condemned list are prioritized jointly by the building and health departments, according to Community Development Director Michael Nuvallie. Sometimes, Nuvallie said, it's the "squeaky wheel that gets the grease," if many neighbors complain to city about a specific problems.

The cost of tearing down a building depends on a number of factors, including size and location, and can exceed $100,000 -- usually far more than the building is even worth.

Officials identified one house, near the Armory building on Ashland Street, that will be targeted for demolition this year.

"The armory has come a long way, the Clark Biscuit building has been substantially renovated across the street, the [North Adams] Housing Authority has pumped a lot of money into its high-rise building," Nuvallie said. "This little green one is sticking out more and more like a sore thumb than ever."

But because it hasn't been condemned yet, Alcombright must ask the City Council to declare the property a public nuisance, he said.

"It's vacant, it's full of trash and debris, while the whole corridor is, in a sense, on the mend," Alcombright said.

Using this strategy, Alcombright said the city will aim to protect growth.

"It's more proactive than it is reactive," Alcombright said. "A lot of the stuff we do we is reactive. Look at some of the stuff we've done on Chase Avenue and some of those areas. Some of those houses and neighborhoods have been in decline for many years, so that's more reactive."

In North Adams, the city's steady and substantial decline in population over several decades has resulted in an excess of housing -- the root cause of blight, according to officials. At the turn of the 20th century, Nuvallie said, the city's population was in excess of 20,000. With only 13,000 residents now, and the majority of its housing stock built before 1930, officials believe there are just too many homes.

"It stands to reason that at some point, through economic attrition, some houses are going to go to waste," Nuvallie said.

Alcombright also blamed predatory lenders in the 2000s, who he says gave mortgages to landlords that were "well in excess" of the property's real value. The owners couldn't find tenants and quickly abandoned the projects, selling them or leaving them unoccupied, according to Alcombright.

"Some of these houses were purchases, loans were taken out, cash was moving around, and they were never inhabited, never touched," Alcombright said. "Quite honestly, it was pretty sickening."

Although the growth in blighted properties has slowed, Meranti said, new examples can still pop up. Sometimes, he said, it may be an elderly homeowner with little money who can't afford to maintain the property, and may die with no family to handle the estate.

No matter what the cause, officials believe they're making progress.

Alcombright points to Brooklyn Street, where the city has conducted several demolitions, as an improving neighborhood.

"The neighbors are starting to take interest again, and they're starting to rehab houses again," Meranti said.

The mayor also pointed to upper Houghton Street and River Street as signs of progress.

But the problem may never be fully resolved until the city's population stabilizes.

"If one day we could pick up our city's census and see it was one person more than it was last year, that would be a win," Alcombright said.

To reach Adam Shanks:
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On Twitter: @EagleAdamShanks


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