Officials have confirmed "human activity" was a factor Saturday's fire in McClung Warehouses. The city had taken steps to secure the property, but there has been a history of vagrants breaking in. 2-5-14
(WBIR-Knoxville) After the Knoxville fire marshal confirmed human activity played a role in the McClung warehouses fire, officials said vagrants have caused safety concerns at dozens of blighted properties across the city.
"It kind of highlights the example of blighted property. Blighted property attracts poor behavior. It's an attractive nuisance and it's dangerous. And so having them removed is important at times," said David Brace, director of public service for the City of Knoxville.
Brace said the McClung property is one of just of dozens of blighted properties the city has to demolish.
"We tear down about 60 to 70 houses each year that are dangerous and blighted, where the private owner has failed to take responsibility," said Brace.
While human activity may be to blame for the historic warehouses, Kim Trent, executive director with Knox Heritage, said she hopes to preserve other homes and buildings that also have reoccurring vagrancy issues.
"The problem with vagrants getting into these properties is so huge; it really is like swimming against high tide trying to keep them out of these properties all over the city," said Trent. "Once they are empty, it becomes like a magnet for vagrants that get in to do illegal activities, to start fires, to take up residence in these places with no working plumbing or electricity. It is a huge problem."
Trent said a current example is an historic home on Branson Avenue in North Knoxville.
"This home was built and occupied by Loyd Branson, who was one of our most prominent painters in the 1900s and the turn of that century," said Trent.
Now, shattered glass coats the side deck, plywood boards cover broken windows, and caution tape hangs from pipes.
"Vagrants were starting fires in the wintertime and causing damage inside," said Trent. "Also the sanitary conditions are a problem, where people are in buildings that don't have plumbing or running water and electricity and they still have to do the things that people have to do ."
Brace said boarding up blighted properties is just a temporary solution.
He said just behind the Branson property is another example, after flames sparked in a two-story garage last April. It was attached to a historic home just off Broadway that has now been demolished.
"There were break-ins, people were living illegally in that property, the owner failed to take corrective action, the garage burned," said Brace.
Neighbors said the reoccurring battle is scary for families who live nearby.
"The fire was a real safety concern for us because of the trees," said Amy Moore, who lives next door to Loyd Branson's former home. "And every winter worry that house is going to go up."
Moore said vagrants had been spotted throwing parties on the porch, and claimed drug activity has been a major concern. She said within the last few months, activity has died down since the most recent work from city crews to board up and essentially barricade the home from being broken into.
"They would pull it down as soon as it got boarded up so it would last for not even a whole day," said Moore. "But it's been better lately."
Brace said neighborhood inspection crews go out to thousands of properties a year, mowing lawns and towing cars, or tearing down blighted homes and buildings.
Flames also ripped through the former Industrial Belting Supply Company on Depot Avenue in March of 2013. Roughly 40 firefighters battled flames that sent embers floating to nearby Old City rooftops. Now, the arson investigator confirmed there was evidence someone had pried into the vacant building.
"The exact cause is still under investigation, but we know someone who wasn't supposed to be was in there," said DJ Corcoran with the Knoxville Fire Department.
Dewhirst Properties had just purchased the building at the time, but the previous owner still had some belongings stored inside. Wednesday, David Dewhirst said one of the buildings that was damaged but not completely destroyed has been restored, and the company has funding to begin redevelopment on the two-block area, including the White Lilly building.
The McClung warehouses are expected to be demolished by the end of the week.