On Albrecht Avenue in Akron’s Ellet neighborhood, a former Lawson convenience store is painted black. There’s now a pizza oven inside and a Donatos sign outside as the pizza chain prepares to open.

On Tallmadge Avenue in North Hill, trees that sprouted from a parking lot during a 2004 bank foreclosure now stretch 20 feet above the gutters of a defunct design business. The building slated for demolition carries a $378,444 bill for back taxes, tall grass, litter accumulation and other health and building code violations. The business next door can't wait until it comes down.

To the east, the owner of the Chapel Hill Mall has not complied with the city’s order to file plans for the reuse of a 140,000-square-foot former auto service center. The old shop is one of the largest vacant commercial spaces in all of Akron.

On the one-year anniversary of Akron's Vacant Building Registry (VBR), the city is still working to identify every empty commercial or industrial structure. A few are marked each month for demolition. And a handful are celebrated as success stories, like the old corner store in Ellet. It'll come off the VBR when the new tenant moves in and starts baking thin-crust pizzas.

The registry, as of last week, captures nearly 200 vacant buildings, with hundreds more thought to be out there. The program fines property owners $1,000 each year they fail to detail plans to repair or reuse the empty structures. Since registration notices were first mailed out in October, the program has generated about $35,000 in fees of $300 or $500 (depending on the size of the building) while issuing $86,000 in penalties to unreachable or unresponsive property owners.

 

While the city’s economic development teams incentivize commercial activity, the VBR program pressures owners of empty factories, offices and storefronts to fill them with businesses and jobs, or possibly be charged to tear them down.

No one at the city can say exactly how many vacant commercial and industrial buildings there are in Akron, let alone where they all are located. The list can grow each time a city council member or constituent calls 311 or goes online to submit a nuisance complaint. The list shrinks each time staff follow up and find that the building only appeared empty from the sidewalk.

The program is overseen by John Valle, director of the Neighborhood Assistance Department, and run by semi-retired John Eaton, the part-time VBR administrator, and George Johnson, a full-time code compliance supervisor. With duties beyond the Vacant Building Registry program, the three-man team relies on the public to locate all vacant buildings to help them hold the owners to account.

The Vacant Building Registry began last year with nearly 300 suspected commercial and industrial vacancies based on Akron fire inspections and a 2015 building inventory by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. The list was thinned through site checks, certified mailers and phone calls to verify the vacancies.

Now, administrators are adding 158 more commercial or industrial properties with suspiciously low water bills.

According to a Beacon Journal/Ohio.com analysis, the registry’s 196 properties collectively owe $2,162,334 in back property taxes. These often-crumbling retail stores, gas stations, factories, machine shops, garages, warehouses and office buildings cover 1.5 million square feet of empty businesses — enough to fill Canal Park 15 times over.

Many of the buildings have been vacant for decades, long ago raided of their copper, aluminum and anything of value. They are the markers of deindustrialization that residents and city leaders say invite blight and crime, undercutting economic progress in many neighborhoods. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls them "the most visible outward signs of a community’s reversing fortunes.”

 

Demolition resolution

For the first time in the decade since the housing crisis, the city is spending more to tear down condemned businesses than empty houses. With $500,000 earmarked for commercial/industrial demolition this year, three VBR listings already are down. Ten more are in the queue.

The Akron Commercial or Industrial Building Appeals Board, is a panel of citizens created by the VBR legislation last June to oversee the program, settle property owner disputes, approve their plans for reuse and, every month so far, sign off on the demolitions. The panel first met in April.

The VBR team is careful not to overwhelm the appeals board with demolition requests. "We have limited funds, so we want to use them judiciously," said Eaton, who recommends three or four properties for demolition at each monthly meeting.

Tugg Massa of Akron Say No to Dope stood before the panel this month. A board member at his nonprofit organization, which places drug-addicted people in treatment, donated the building at 1279 Grant St. to the cause. Massa envisioned an online thrift store supporting a conjoined food pantry to feed the surrounding South Akron neighborhood.

Massa gathered help and applied a fresh coat of gray paint to the  building and removed trash from the parking lot. Then he explored renovation costs. A new roof would run $25,000. All new electrical and plumbing could be done on discount with workers willing to donate most of the time and materials.

Three weeks after taking possession of the building June 6, which was going on 30 years of vacancy, the VBR program notified Massa of the city's intent to demolish. Massa made a plea to council members who support his organization's work. The elected leaders set up a meeting with Valle, who informed Massa that permits to fix up the property could reach $10,000 or more, and anything commercial requires a fire suppression system with a price tag between $30,000 and $40,000.

"Am I in over my head?" Massa asked at the private meeting with city officials. "They all agreed, 'Yes, I’m in over my head.'"

So Massa signed a waiver. He would not contest the demolition. In exchange, the city agreed to cover the first $10,000 of the demolition, which may only cost half that, Valle said. Plus the city forgave the filing fee and, as part of its demolition waiver program for residential and commercial properties, will reimburse Massa for hiring a professional to check for asbestos (likely not there because of the missing pipes).

 

In the end, Massa said he's happy to cut the grass on the soon-to-be empty lot and pay a couple hundred dollars every six months in property taxes on the commercially zoned land, which will be put up for sale.

The VBR program was lenient with Massa because his nonprofit organization is a benefit to the community and the property wasn't swamped in back taxes or nuisance complaints, said Valle.

 

'Going to fight'

Abdelrahman Abdelqader owns the most properties on the registry. One of the men who pleaded guilty to bribing former Summit County Councilwoman Tamela Lee, Abdelqader bought most of his properties on land contract, an arrangement that allows investors with no capital or credit to make payments to the seller, who keeps a controlling interest in what happens on the property until the debt is completely settled.

Abdelqader said he thought his corner stores, drive-thrus, gas stations and car shops would be his retirement. After a series of bad business decisions, he said, "I’m having trouble renting out these buildings. I’m way behind on the property tax."

On the VBR, he owns the Taste of Bangkok on East Exchange Street and the empty building beside it, closer to state Route 8. He said the person holding the land contract has limited who he can rent to.

Three other properties owned by Abdelqader on the list have $27,653 in delinquent taxes and fines. There's a car garage at 1270 Superior Ave. where the last tenant kept getting fined for working on vehicles in the parking lot. The mechanic "got fed up, so he just moved out," Abdelqader said. An old storefront at 1050 S. Main St. was easier to rent, he said, before construction on the Central Interchange turned that section of Main Street into a side street. And the third, 781 Grant St., is being recommended for demolition at the July VBR meeting.

Abdelqader is hiring a lawyer. "I'm not ready to sign it over to them," he said. "I’m going to fight for it. But with the property taxes, honestly, I don't know what to do."

He doubts anyone else would have better luck, even if the government tears down his building and erases the back taxes before putting it back on the market. "Nobody is going to buy it. It’s going to be a vacant lot," he said. "Akron has so many vacant lots."

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.