The dilapidated house at 1232 La. once again has fueled debate over what's come to be known as "demolition by neglect" in some of Lawrence's older neighborhoods.
The practice is especially apparent in Oread Neighborhood, located east of the Kansas University campus. Because property in that area is in high demand either for campus expansion or to provide denser housing for KU students, faculty and staff, it often is to an owner's financial advantage to simply allow existing houses to deteriorate to the point that there is no reasonable way to save them. Then the houses can be demolished, making room for more lucrative development.
The current debate focuses on 1232 La., a house that has been standing since at least 1918 but which has no other historical significance. According to various sources, any number of owners of the property are responsible for its current deplorable condition. There also is a wide variance of opinion on whether the house could be rehabilitated, and even if it could, whether it would make any sense to put that much money into the property.
There are arguments on all sides of this issue, which pits private property rights against neighborhood interests and the public good. However, one thing is clear: Whatever discussion is taking place about this property now should have taken place decades ago before the property was in such poor shape that many options already had been eliminated.
If the city wants to have a meaningful role in stabilizing existing housing and reducing instances of demolition by neglect, it needs to be far more active in inspecting property before it falls into hopeless disrepair. After a property reaches the condition of 1232 La., about all the city can do is try to control how the property is used after the demolition occurs. In this neighborhood, it's highly unlikely that a single-family house will occupy the lot. The property might be used for a multifamily structure or it might be combined with other lots for a larger apartment development.
It could be argued that about any new development would be preferable to the current uninhabitable and potentially dangerous structure. But that wasn't always the case. The attorney representing the current owner says his client isn't to blame because he just bought the property from the KU Endowment Association in 2007. Endowment says the house already was uninhabitable when it bought it in 2000 along with land KU needed for a new scholarship hall. Maybe it was the owner who sold it to KU or the one before that, but somewhere back there, this was a desirable home that, with the proper care, still would be a good place for a family or a group of tenants to live.
Then, not now, is when the city needed to get involved. The city can use zoning and building regulations to preserve neighborhoods and control development in the central part of the city, but that becomes meaningless if property owners are allowed to use intentional negligence as a way to sidestep those regulations.
The city's historic resources administrator said this week that 1232 La. "is probably a good case study for demolition by neglect." The city should, by all means, study this case and many others that have occurred in recent years to see what they can learn about situations that reach the point where anything the city can do is too little and too late.