Knoxville's "Demolition by Neglect" Ordinance Finally Gets Some Teeth

Mayor Madeline Rogero's budget includes $100,000 for enforcement of the Demolition by Neglect ordinance, passed by the city a decade ago but largely ignorable by property owners because it lacked actual teeth. The ordinance was intended as a remedy to architectural blight, to discourage property owners from letting buildings deteriorate to a point that they're likely to collapse. However, without funding, the ordinance forbidding demolition by neglect was never very persuasive.

"For years, the city has had a ‘demolition by neglect' ordinance in the books to protect historic properties, but has not allocated resources to implement it," said Rogero in her budget speech. "I am creating a fund that will allow the city to act to stabilize these historic properties and ensure that they are not condemned to destruction through the inaction of their owners."

What the ordinance, combined with funding, can do is stabilize buildings in danger of deterioration or collapse—and charge the expenses to the owner. Knoxville Director of Public Service David Brace was unavailable for comment this week, but Rogero spokesman Jesse Mayshark made a few broad remarks about the initiative. "Demolition by neglect is not new," he says, "what's new is using it. Just to have that tool sitting there doesn't necessarily have the deterrent effect you want it to."

To determine what passes for "historic," the city will depend on criteria like the National Register of Historic Places, as well as H-1 overlay zones. Mayshark describes it as a "fairly lengthy process" involving findings of non-compliance. The city will make stabilizing repairs—not renovations, but in many cases a new roof, for example, to prevent further water damage—and bill the owner. "If the owner refuses," Mayshark says, "we can move to legal solutions, up to and including putting a lien on the property." The "seed funding" would be replenished as owners pay the city back for work they contract to do.

Mayshark says Rogero is targeting no buildings in particular with the funds. However, preservationists have used the phrase "demolition by neglect" to describe the state of several buildings in recent years. One is the Pickle Mansion on Clinch Avenue in Fort Sanders; badly damaged by fire years ago, the brick Victorian has been subject of an apparently stalled renovation effort. Likewise South High, seemingly saved when purchased by a private developer a few years ago, is still empty and reportedly deteriorating again. The Cal Johnson Building, on State Street, has been the subject of preservationist concern for more than 20 years; that 1890s building is of particular interest as a rarity, an industrial building built by a former slave in the Jim-Crow South. Originally a clothing factory next door to Johnson's residence, it's believed to be the only survivor of the several buildings Johnson was associated with in his life—but lacking windows and a secure roof, it's a little worse every year.

And, of course, the remaining McClung Warehouses, the conspicuous West Jackson headquarters of a major local wholesale company, most of which were destroyed in a major fire five years ago, have remained a perennial frustration to the city. Forcing a solution to that long block seems more urgent than ever, with vigorous development going on nearby.

"I think it will help," says Knox Heritage director Kim Trent, "because it will communicate the fact that the city is serious about enforcing building codes and saving historic properties."