Public safety officials don’t expect to bring a wrecking ball to the historic Swallow Mansion on N. 6th Street, where an entryway partially collapsed on Monday night.
Harrisburg codes administrator Dave Patton said that state preservation laws would likely prevent the demolition of the condemned 19th-century mansion.
Crumbling brick gave way above the property’s Boas Street entrance on Monday, partially exposing the building’s interior on the first and second floors. Patton said that the damage appears to be isolated.
Patton said the collapse was caused by water infiltration that eroded old brick above the Boas Street entryway. Aside from that area, the mansion is mostly sturdy and salvageable, he said.
“Demolition isn’t something I’d pursue at that property,” he said. “There’s the magnitude of cost, and it would be a huge loss to the area from a historical standpoint.”
The news may come as a relief to adjacent property owners, since Harrisburg’s dense row-home style buildings mean that one collapse can endanger nearby structures.
That’s what happened recently on S. 15th Street, where crews had to demolish five homes in a row after one of them collapsed, Patton said.
The Swallow Mansion sat vacant for decades before it was condemned in 2010. Harrisburg has issued numerous code citations against its owner, Annette Antoun, most recently in October.
Patton said that a person with power of attorney for Antoun, as well as a contractor, visited the property on Wednesday. They obtained a permit to stabilize the collapsed wall from the foundation to its roof on the same day.
In the meantime, Patton expects Antoun’s family to move ahead with repairs.
“This will be a temporary measure, but it will mitigate any public safety threat until [we reach] a final solution,” Patton said.
Civil or criminal misdemeanor charges against Antoun remain an option if she doesn’t tend to the collapse. But according to Patton, Antoun is aged and reportedly incapacitated by a stroke, which complicates the process for pressing charges.
Could it have been prevented?
Patton isn’t just eyeing a permanent solution for the Swallow Mansion – he’s also helping state legislators craft policy that will make it harder for unscrupulous buyers to purchase properties they have no intent of improving.
Reams of research show that blighted, abandoned buildings encourage crime, reduce neighborhood property values and are even associated with depression among nearby residents. Left unchecked, a blighted property can also pose significant public safety risk if it crumbles or catches fire.
That risk is even greater when a building’s demise comes from internal structural failure.
“Nobody can see through the walls and anticipate what’s going to collapse,” Patton said. “It can be solid and suddenly go down, but there’s really no way to tell.”
When a property becomes visibly unsound, the city can issue summary code violation citations to property owners, as it did to Antoun. But it’s easy for property owners to ignore the citations, which have the same legal heft as a parking ticket, Patton said.
Cities also have a narrow ability to pursue civil charges against a property owner. Patton said the Swallow Mansion didn’t meet the criteria for that action.
Now that the mansion has partially collapsed, Harrisburg can press misdemeanor charges if its owners stall their stabilization and clean-up efforts. But, as was the case in the 2015 collapse of a retaining wall at the McFarland Apartments on Mulberry Street, nobody wants to take responsibility for the property damage.
Since Antoun suffered a stroke, her adult sons have reportedly managed her properties in Harrisburg. But the one who reportedly marketed the property to prospective buyers now denies responsibility and ownership.
The Swallow Mansion represents a case in which the owner of a derelict property was local to the city. Just as often, absentee owners live in far-flung locations, Patton said, and buy Harrisburg properties online. They often write off these sales for tax purposes and leave the properties to the elements.
“Municipalities are hobbled by the legislation that’s in place now,” said Patton. “I have owners in Mexico, Indonesia, England, Australia who buy a property for $500 and auction it off. We have to issue new condemnation orders. But before the ink is dry, they’re on the move again.”
Patton is working with a state senator to create greater accountability in real estate transactions. Legislation from Sen. David Argall, R-Berks, would require anyone buying a property at tax sale to take out a bond in the municipality where the property is located.
Adding the bond requirement to the front end of the sale would weed out buyers who aren’t serious about redevelopment, Patton said.
Patton has advocated for a provision that would allow municipalities to waive the bond requirement for nonprofit developers or other vetted parties. But he thinks the bond payment, which would start at $600, is a reasonable price for buyers to pay to show their commitment to a property.