Four years after a previous owner legally walked away from the Owen Block by ceasing to pay property taxes on it, the once-blighted 19th century row house has new tenants at long last.
Thursday night, developer Mike Martin held a private showing of the long-vacant — but now almost completely renovated— building at Second and Chestnut streets for donors of Indianapolis-based nonprofit Indiana Landmarks. The historic preservation organization helped lead the charge to rescue the once-ornate structure with striking Second Empire architecture using money from private donors as well as taxpayer dollars.
Two of the structure’s 15 luxury one-bedroom apartments are occupied, although no renters were in evidence before Thursday’s private showing. Eight more apartments — they occupy 700-800 square feet and rent for $800 to $900 per month — have been leased, according to Martin.
There can be little doubt the units are meant for luxury. They feature granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances and stacked washer/dryers. The Owen Block — so named because it was built by prominent Evansville surgeon and investor Dr. Abraham Owen— also has a lower level workout room and a small private courtyard with bike rack and plants.
“It being restored and looking nice makes people think it’s a nicer neighborhood, and I think it helps the whole area,” said neighbor Jerry Johnson, who said he has lived in a 19th Century two-story brick structure at First and Chestnut for 25 years.
Speaking while he watered ivy climbing a tree outside his house, Johnson said it’s a relief to find out Martin has rented 15 parking spaces nearby for the expected influx of new neighbors. Street parking also will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Just more than three years ago, city officials were talking about demolishing the Owen Block. Its numerous structural problems included significant amounts of water seeping through a collapsed section of roof, extensive interior deterioration, shifting exterior walls and a gutted interior. At one time, windows stayed open in winter, allowing animals and vandals inside.
Things began to look up in 2014, when supporters used social media to galvanize historical preservation advocates and city officials.
In March 2015, a code enforcement hearing officer approved the city’s request to scotch demolition plans. The action came two days after Indiana Landmarks bought the building and transferred it to Martin’s company. Landmarks acquired it from a Chicago-based LLC that had purchased the right to collect the building’s property tax lien at Vanderburgh County’s 2014 tax sale.
The transaction required facing up to previous owner Neuhoff Development LLC’s unwillingness to be involved any longer.
Indiana Landmarks reported paying about $14,000 to clear up Owen Block’s local and state tax liens. Neuhoff Development stopped paying property taxes on the structure after a failed development attempt in 2012, and afterward was unwilling to pay for repairs.
State law allowed the LLC to abandon its Owen Block redevelopment project without any legal repercussions.
In Indiana, an investor who is willing to part with a structure can avoid paying code enforcement fines, repair orders, even demolition. All the owner has to do is skip paying at least three consecutive seasonal installments of county property taxes — 18 months— and the property goes to tax sale. The former property owner pays nothing.
Plenty of private money — and $100,000 in taxpayer money — went into the Owen Block rescue.
In 2015, the Landmarks group reported it met a fundraising goal of $440,000 from historical preservation supporters to help cover the cost of stabilization and part of the necessary exterior restoration. That amount, Landmarks said, was needed just to get a developer interested in taking on the renovation.
The public money came from two sources.
Fifty thousand dollars came from an unexpended federal Urban Development Action Grant. Another $50,000 was drawn from a previously dormant 2006 bond intended to fund property acquisition, sidewalks and demolitions in the Front Door Pride area. The local bond money was spent on public infrastructure — primarily sidewalk construction — around the building. The federal grant money helped Indiana Landmarks pay Martin to stabilize Owen Block.
City officials have justified the expenditure of tax dollars on the once-dilapidated Owen Block by saying it will pay off in future property tax receipts.