A year and a half ago, an abandoned warehouse burned to the ground blocks away from the vacant Thomas Buck building that caught fire on Monday. That wasn't the first time, either: In 2007, an empty Kensington paint factory went ablaze, taking a few row houses with it, and leaving behind a still-empty lot. And, as has been widely reported, neighbors had been complaining about the vacant Thomas Buck building — and the drug users pouring in and out of it with ease — since last fall.
As city officials made very clear at a press conference late Monday afternoon, the city had been aware of the complaints. They'd even responded according to procedure — but procedure doesn't seem to include a box to check for eerie similarities.
Following a blast of complaints about the building to 311 last October, the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections issued a notice of violation, then a second, then a third, and was in the process of taking the owners to court. The city's Law Department had meanwhile begun to pursue legal action to take the property, whose owners owed tens of thousands in taxes, to sheriff's sale.
But one problem is that none of that equated to the city's taking the initiative to block access to the building. At one point during the press conference, Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said that the city had been seeking a court order to seal the building. But not a minute later, L&I Commissioner Fran Burns conceded to Hall Monitor that L&I did not require such an order to seal properties.
What's more, L&I had sealed the property — way back in 2004, and not very effectively: Jesse Gardener, who owns property nearby, describes residents attempting to close entrances themselves during the months when the city was apparently mired in paperwork.
As of press time, it's not clear what caused the fire and whether the city's neglect or more nefarious motives are directly responsible.
What is clear is that, despite neighbors' efforts, despite a real overhaul of L&I policies under Burns, and despite the fact that this property and its problems were, if you will, in the system — that system had been churning for more than six months without a noticeable change at the property itself.
City officials were quick on Monday to note that the city had, in fact, responded to citizens' concerns; they should explain next what the mayor's plan is to solve them.