April 27, 2017
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Curious Kenosha: Why do buildings stay empty so long?

City codes, market conditions at play in resolving issues with vacant buildings



As development and redevelopment proceed at a steady pace, questions often arise about how existing buildings in Kenosha can remain vacant or abandoned for long periods of time.

Kenosha News reader Lorrie Marzini asked: “Why do we allow so many empty store fronts and buildings to sit for such long periods of time? Can’t restrictions be put in place to stop this?”

An answer to the first part of that question can be difficult to nail down. There are differences between something that is vacant and something that’s abandoned.

As John Fox is alderman for Kenosha’s 2nd District, which contains most of what is considered downtown Kenosha. He said there are almost no abandoned buildings in his district. “We don’t have any abandoned buildings downtown,” Fox said. “They are all privately owned. As for the larger (empty buildings), I believe the majority of them are for sale.”

Some large buildings downtown seem to have been empty for a long time, however, including several large former retail sites. But Fox says progress is being made on many of them. The Alford Building, 702 58th St., has been purchased by the city and has been stabilized. “The former Garb’s Building (5801 Sixth Avenue), the city has purchased,” added Fox, “and we are planning on razing that soon.”

The most obvious large vacant building in downtown, said Fox, is probably the former Barden’s store, on the northeast corner of 58th Street and Seventh Avenue. “That building looks abandoned, but it’s privately owned and it’s for sale,” he explained.

Fox said that a push by city zoning officials last summer and fall addressed the condition of many of the buildings downtown, specifically in the Lakeshore Business Improvement District. “I believe a lot of the building owners are working on those repairs,” Fox said. “With spring coming up, they will have more time to take care of those repairs.

“The Elks Club (5708 Eighth Ave.), you could have considered abandoned, now it has fallen into the city’s hands and (a developer) is working on it. As of today, I truly believe it will move forward, and it will do nothing but enhance the downtown area once it’s completed.”

Vacant vs abandoned: no distinction

Officially speaking, the city of Kenosha makes no distinction between vacant and abandoned buildings. “We have requirements that vacant buildings (require) vacant building permits,” said Jeff Labahn, Director of Community Development and Inspections, “if they have been vacant over a certain period of time.”

Through its vacant building permit process, the city develops contact information with what it calls “responsible parties,” like an owner or building manager.

“There are properties that, quite frankly, where we don’t have a responsive responsible party,” said Labahn. “But we still would not (call that building abandoned). We do have cases where a person in a building may have moved to another state, but there is ultimately someone who would be considered a responsible party.

“One of the (objectives) of the vacant building process is to have a working contact with the city, so we can have someone to connect with. But, just because a building is vacant, it doesn’t mean there are violations.”

Despite that, Labahn explained many vacant properties do have code violations.

“There is no doubt about it, the majority of buildings that are vacant have one or more violations,” he explained. “The important thing in that process is, that when there is a vacant building and there are violations, that the city is working with a responsible party to deal with those violations.”

What annoys many people in the city is when a building sits vacant for an extended period of time. In many cases, the city has few options.

“There is nothing in city ordinances that requires a property to be occupied after being vacant after a certain period of time,” Labahn explained. “Part of that vacant building permit process is that, in an extended period of vacancy, that the building is maintained to city standards.”

If the property taxes are paid and there is not a constant string of code violations, a building can remain unoccupied almost indefinitely. Said Labahn: “There is not an ultimate deadline or a requirement that says a person can’t keep a building in a vacant status for a period of time.

“Typically, in most reasonable situations, the market is going to resolve (the issue of vacant buildings). Most individuals or entities don’t want to be dealing with a vacant building over an extended period of time.”

Fox agreed that market conditions, as well as the city’s own property buying efforts, have begun to pay results.

“There are a lot of positive things going on downtown,” Fox said. “A lot of investors have been coming into downtown and they are curious about what buildings might be for sale.”


Are you curious?

What do you wonder about the Kenosha area, its people and culture? With Curious Kenosha, we’re looking into the questions that matter to you.

Visit www.kenoshanews.com/curiouskenosha to submit your question, read what others have submitted and — when voting rounds are taking place — have your say on which one we answer next.



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