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City of Wheeling Poised to Purchase 19th Street Property

File Photo City leaders are moving forward with a plan to purchase the long-neglected warehouse property at the corner of 19th and Jacob streets in Wheeling, at one time a potential site for the proposed public safety building.

WHEELING — City Council will consider legislation Tuesday for the purchase of former warehouse property at 19th and Jacob streets that at one time had been under consideration for a new public safety building.

With plans for the public safety building now focusing on the former Ohio Valley Medical Center property, which the city recently purchased, city leaders have continued to consider the purchase of the former warehouse property on 19th Street. The site has crumbling vacant industrial buildings that have been described as “eyesores.”

It sits in East Wheeling, and can be easily seen by those traveling W.Va. 2.

The warehouse property, made up of several parcels of land owned by Americo Inc., has environmental concerns, as well, and will require abatement action before any future development takes place.

“We’ve had an option agreement with Americo which started out at 90 days,” Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said on Friday.

Initially as the city looked at the site for the new public safety building, work was done for the needed environmental review at that location. This triggered extensions of the option agreements — first another 90-day extension, and then two additional 30-day extensions.

During that time, the focus of the public safety site search shifted to OVMC, Herron noted, and city council eventually voted to acquire the hospital campus in June.

The 19th Street property remains under an option agreement for purchase, and because the city has opted to locate the public safety building elsewhere, the price tag for the 19th Street parcels has gone down to the base price of $150,000, Herron said. There had been an additional $195,000 environmental escrow attached to the original proposal that no longer applies if the city purchases the property.

“Now it is no longer the primary focus of public safety, but we have done a significant amount of environmental review work on the property, we know what the remediation issues are, and they are not nearly as extensive as what we thought they might be,” the city manager said. “We’ve had numerous discussions with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection staff regarding the studies that we have completed in a manner in which to remediate the property. We’re at a point where we have a very good chance of obtaining funding through the West Virginia DEP to demolish and abate the property through a grant/loan.”

The site contains just under 3 acres of land and has full utilities. If the property is cleared and prepared for development, with all remediation complete, it would carry a newly appraised value of $400,000, Herron said. As it stands now, the site has no value outside of what council will ask taxpayers to spend on the purchase.

“Ultimately, the purpose of purchasing this property would be to clean it up and prepare it for future new development,” Herron said. “In that neighborhood right now, there’s been a significant amount of new economic activity. Ziegenfelder’s is currently expanding, Carenbauer’s expanded, Taylormade Printing has made renovations, the city has invested in the J.B. Chambers Recreation Complex. This is a great opportunity to prepare an almost 3-acre site for development.”

In terms of remediation, there will be no need to haul any material off site, Herron said.

“When a building is built, there would need to be a vapor barrier installed underneath the building at the time of construction, and that is estimated to cost $100,000. Demolition and asbestos remediation is estimated to cost $250,000.”

Both the environmental remediation in the ground and asbestos abatement from the buildings would be eligible for funding through the state grant/loan program. City leaders are very hopeful that the grant/loan funding would be received. In fact, they’ve been encouraged to apply for it by the DEP, Herron claimed. The total amount available would be $300,000, and the loan portion would be 0 percent interest, Herron noted.

In order to be eligible for the funding, the city must own the property.

If city council moves forward with the purchase of the property, Herron said he would like to apply for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection funding this month.

Money in the city’s project fund would be used for the purchase of the property. Currently, the city has $1.5 million in this fund, the city manager said.

“This is a situation similar to the 1100 block (downtown) where the city bought dilapidated structures,” Herron said. “In that case the Tax Increment Financing acquired, demolished and prepared the site for development, and look what we have now.

“This site is much larger than that, with full utilities in an industrial-commercially zoned area. It is in a business district that is really thriving right now.”

Many have argued that the city needs to hold the property owner — Frank Calabrese, owner and president of Americo — responsible for cleaning up the 19th Street site.

“The city had been involved with code enforcement with Americo for several years,” Herron explained. “A few years back, we reached an agreement where a portion of the building would be demolished, which the owner did. And then he replaced all of the windows at that time. Since that time, there has been deterioration. But that property was the subject of code enforcement and court action for the past several years.”

This renewed interest in purchasing the property goes beyond code enforcement, Herron said.

“You’ve got to look at the broader picture and take it a step further,” he said. “We believe we’ve lined up funding to alleviate a dilapidated structure and prepare a site that the city would control that we believe would be a prime opportunity for future new development in the center of Wheeling.

“You can be at the level of looking at it as code enforcement, and that’s fair. I get that. But we’re taking it up and looking at it as an economic development and a community development opportunity that will pan out down the road, as well.”

Members of Wheeling City Council have already come out in support of acquiring the property, including at least one member who previously had spoken out against it.

Councilman Ben Seidler, representing Ward 2, had campaigned on a platform that highlighted the need to hold owners of dilapidated properties accountable. He has vowed to work to clean up the blight areas of town.

When the 19th Street property was initially considered for the city’s Public Safety Building, Seidler said he believed the price was too high. After considering the offer that stands, he noted several reasons why he will back the legislation.

“I absolutely support this acquisition at this point,” Seidler said Friday. “This building has represented everything I am against as not only a resident, but also a member of city council representing the hundreds and hundreds of other residents living in neighborhoods with incredible potential, but littered with blight across parts of our city. Buildings like this destroy our property values and degrade our quality of life.

“For as long as I can remember, this building has been rotting away and falling further into disrepair. This building has not only been a dangerous eyesore to its neighbors, but also the hundreds of vehicles that drive into our beautiful city from Route 2.”

Seidler said as a matter of principle, this building served to “laugh in the face of our municipal court system and city code enforcement department” by violating numerous building and property maintenance related ordinances.

“I can’t even imagine how much time and money the city spent trying to enforce our code trying to force this property into compliance, or how many hours neighboring business spent making excuses to their customers as to why this building was allowed to remain in this state over the years,” he said.

The alternative is that taxpayers have to tear it down anyway and then place a lien on the property, which the city realistically may never recover, Seilder said.

“If you take the emotion out of the equation and think about this objective standpoint, but the bottom line is that if we are being realistic, this was a horrible investment back in the day, and while I personally believe he should have tried a lot harder to get out from under it, no matter how we try to spin it, I strongly believe that this monstrosity will not ever go away unless we intervene,” Seidler said. “This is no longer a golden egg for the owner. The price is at a level that once the dust settles will still be in line with the price for a prime piece of real estate in our city, and will no longer overshadow our neighborhood.”

Seidler noted that the city’s raze and repair list currently has a total of 50 properties. Of those properties, 24 are in the ward he represents — Ward 2. Another 20 are in Ward 3, which is represented by Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum. The other wards in the city have one or two of the remaining dilapidated structures.

According to Seidler, he and Ketchum are both dedicated to help clean up the problem that has plagued their wards.

On Friday, Ketchum said she also supports the new legislation to purchase and clean up the Americo property — which lies in her ward.

“While the 19th Street property has been a controversial piece of land for some time, I believe the city is doing now what we should’ve done 30 years ago — cleaning up blight,” Ketchum said. “I believe identifying opportunities to create healthy environments for economic development is vital to our success, and if it takes the city stepping in to make it happen, then so be it.

“Of course, I am biased toward my ward, but I think the acquisition of this property is a net positive for the entire city and will no doubt help promote more development in the surrounding areas. I just hope that we take a more serious approach to hold property owners accountable for their negligence so that we can continue building a healthier, more accountable city for the future.”

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