C.R. neighbors keep wary eye on vacant, flood-damaged buildings

City has seen string of fires since Floods of 2008

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CEDAR RAPIDS — He’s not a nosy neighbor, but Larry Peyton keeps an eye on the house next door.

“It’s still got power to it as far as I know, which to me is more of a hazard than some of the others,” Peyton said one day last week, nodding toward the house.

One of dozens of buildings still vacant in Cedar Rapids after the June 2008 flood, 1422 Sixth St. NW sits on a small lot within about 10 feet of Peyton’s home and its neighbor on the other side. Peyton was relieved when a demolition notice was posted on its front door Nov. 21.

“If it would catch fire, there’s no doubt it would take out a house on each side,” he said.

Forty flood-damaged structures have caught fire over the past four years, the most recent Dec. 3.

“I can’t go through a fire after the flood, that’s for sure,” said Mike Papich, owner of Papich-Kuba Funeral Home, 1228 Second St. SE. “If something went up in flames closer than that grocery I’d be a little concerned, but I don’t know what a person could do.”

Papich was referring to the Nov. 30 fire that leveled the old Globe Grocery at 131 14th Ave. SW, just days after historic preservation advocates convinced the city to save it. The grocery store stood about two blocks from the funeral home.

Criminal acts?

Suspects were charged in two of the fires involving flood-damaged buildings. Investigators said the Globe fire was the result of some “human element,” but the building’s destruction left no clues whether accidental — vagrants trying to keep warm, or discarded cigarette butts — or intentional.

“There are a multitude of possible causes, so in the absence of electrical and gas utilities, as well as severe weather (like a lightning strike), it appears that there is a human element involved,” Fire Department spokesman Greg Buelow wrote in an email.

Buelow said a fire can’t declared an arson unless its cause is determined.

“It is possible that someone was inside and built a fire to stay warm,” Buelow wrote. “It is also possible that someone was inside cooking food, and the fire got out of hand or wasn’t extinguished properly. It could be a careless discarded cigarette or other smoking material. It could be someone doing illegal activity inside.  And, it could be someone with ill intent that wants to set something on fire.”

New Bo preservation

A few blocks north and east of Globe Grocery, the New Bohemia entertainment district appears to be gaining momentum, with new businesses moving into buildings that had been vacant before the flood. But the blocks between the Third Avenue-12th Street SE intersection and the Bridge of the Lions gateway to Czech Village are dotted with a few occupied homes, some longtime businesses and several vacant structures scattered among the empty lots.

“We’ve been in touch with the city,” said Jennifer Pruden, executive director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District. “Whenever we notice anything, we let them know there is an issue. They have been sending people out to check on them and secure them.”

Preservation advocates are keeping an eye on 10 buildings in New Bohemia and in the Kingston commercial district on the west side of the river, said Beth DeBoom, president of Save CR Heritage. The group had convinced the city to shift the Globe building from its demolition list to be preserved.

“We have a lot of people interested in saving these and making them economically viable again,” said DeBoom. “I’m just worried that one of those buildings is not going to make it through the process, and those (in Kingston) are so close together. The city-owned properties are the most vulnerable right now, so that’s where we’ve focused our attention.”

City property

Many of the buildings still standing, in New Bo and other flooded neighborhoods, became city property through buyouts in the recovery process.

Monica Vernon, chair of city council’s development committee, said many of the remaining vacant buildings have legally clouded titles and other issues delaying demolition.

“Some of these people (owners) have left town and we don’t know where they are right now,” Vernon said. “The easy ones, the low-hanging fruit, we’re done with. Now we’re down to the tough cookies.”

Vernon said the city hopes to have all flood-damaged homes disposed of by the end of the year, leaving the business properties to deal with. She said the city will start charging property owners who leave their buildings unsecured.

“If it sits empty for a certain amount of time we’re going to start charging for services because we’re baby-sitting these properties,” Vernon said. “Our taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay because someone’s decided no one’s going to live in that house.”

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