What’s Up with the Big Cortez Hole?

For the past six years, a huge construction hole in the lower Cortez neighborhood has remained a collection of rusty rebar, weeds and dirt, and wooden shoring. Located midblock between Ash and Beech, the L-shaped property is flanked on Fourth and Fifth avenues by temporary covered walkways, painted green and decorated with graffiti and movie posters.

Construction began on the project, a 74-unit condo development called the Atmosphere, with excavation for a three-level parking garage. But the project ran into problems. According to Centre City Development Corporation documents, “The owner(s) tried for several years to recommence construction but were unsuccessful, and the building permits expired.” The developer’s website described the Atmosphere as “a sophisticated, spacious, creative urban living experience, perfectly positioned in the Heart of Downtown.” Obviously, it wasn’t so perfectly positioned after all.

In December 2009, Jeff W. Graham, vice president for redevelopment at Centre City Development Corporation, said in an email, “The former Atmosphere site was foreclosed upon by the lender, an entity of Dunham & Associates.” A local affordable-housing developer, Wakeland Housing & Development Corporation, was interested in buying the property.

By early March, the property was in escrow. Jeffrey A. Dunham, of Dunham & Associates, says that the escrow is “set to close in June.”

Although Wakeland will purchase the property, it will then sell it to the City’s Redevelopment Agency. Wakeland will build on the property when public funds become available. Graham reports that on March 10, at a development corporation board meeting, “The board voted 3–0 to recommend the Redevelopment Agency approve the site acquisition and [exclusive negotiation agreement] with Wakeland Housing and Development Corporation.” Graham expects the City’s Redevelopment Agency to consider the matter at its April 12 meeting.

The Centre City Development Corporation reports that the property’s purchase price is $4.95 million. The nonprofit Wakeland Housing, located downtown on Columbia Street, builds affordable-housing projects with resident-education programs for low-income families. “Our programs offer health and wellness education, financial education, recreation and social activities,” the Wakeland website says. “With its for-profit and non-profit partners, Wakeland has developed, acquired and rehabilitated over 5,000 units of affordable housing.”

Last June, development corporation staff estimated that “between 90 and 115 affordable housing units in one or two buildings with ground floor retail” could be built on the Fourth Avenue site. Barry Getzel, director of project development at Wakeland, says that 90 to 110 units are currently planned.

As for the hole in the ground, which is 22 feet deep in places, “Flores Lund Consultants was retained to review the in-place temporary shoring system,” states a report for the development corporation’s March 10 meeting. “While the shoring was found to be in better condition than expected, significant deterioration of several soldier beams and lagging boards was detected.” The report adds that “pedestrian traffic control [the walkways] is also in disrepair and requires improvement if the site were to remain excavated.” As new construction may not begin “for a period of up to three or more years,” Lund recommended that the site “be backfilled and capped with asphalt.”

Consequently, the hole will be filled. “The Agency is requiring,” Graham says, “and the seller has agreed, to fill and compact the excavated site with certified clean fill material, to CCDC’s satisfaction, and obtaining executed tie-back agreements from all five adjacent property owners prior to escrow closing for the site’s acquisition by the Agency.” The consultant estimated that the work will require about 22,000 cubic yards of fill material.

Adjacent property owners can be affected when tie-backs securing wooden shoring are removed. Spencer S. Busby owns the law offices south of the site on Fifth Avenue. “When they did the initial construction and left the hole unattended,” he says in an email, “the adjacent owner caused visible cracks to form on the inside of our building, so we already have some property damage from that.

“We would obviously want the owner to clean up the area,” Busby adds, “because I do believe it has detrimentally affected our business and attracts homeless and potentially more crime (cars broken into at night). One client actually told me he drove by and thought we were closed and went to another attorney.”

Last April, Busby contacted the City’s Neighborhood Code Compliance, complaining about the condition of the walkway. Paul A. Elias, a building inspector with the division, reported back in a May 13 letter to Busby that the “property owner/management hired a professional work crew.” The crew cleaned up trash, locked the chain-link fence, and painted over graffiti, Elias reported.

More recently, people have been observed entering the site through a loose panel in the plywood fence outside Busby’s offices. In December, two trespassers were seen on the property picking up cans and bottles for recycling. Although the panel was secured, a new entry point has been created. The construction hole and the vertical and horizontal rebar on the site could cause injury if someone slipped and fell.

“The property owner could at least share partial liability for any injuries or crime perpetrated by anyone facilitated in entering the property,” says Busby.

In the development corporation’s community plan for Cortez, a park and plaza — named St. Joseph’s park — occupy the entire block that’s across Fourth Avenue from the construction hole. Other than an old apartment-hotel, the block is now used as a parking lot.

Just north of the proposed park is the historic St. Joseph’s Cathedral. On the northeast corner of Fourth and Beech, the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center is nearing completion.

Although converting the parking lot to a park would mean fewer places for cars, the development corporation has a new parking lot in the works — on the filled-in, paved-over site of the huge construction hole. Says Graham, “It may take a year or two for federal and/or state funding sources to be appropriated for new construction of affordable units. Staff will secure parking revenue/cost estimates from parking operators and return to the CCDC board for direction.”

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This is not much different than the last real estate meltdown, where there were two huge eye sores just like this.

The first one was on Laurel going up the hill to the park, near the top on the north side where a condo builder ran out of money and left a hole in the ground full of concrete and rebar.

The second was downtown, a commercial building had nothing but a hole dug for the foundation with concrete and more rebar. Both sat that way for 10+ years.

Thanks for this story. It's great to have a publication/journalists that make the effort to explain and describe what we see around the city.

Today, five years from the date my article appeared, groundbreaking took place at the site for the new Atmosphere apartment complex with about 200 affordable units. The project is from Wakeland Housing and Development Corp. (www.wakelandhdc.com), and construction is supposed to take about a year.

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