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When you are the oldest continuously occupied city of European origin in the United States and on the precipice of celebrating the 450th Anniversary of your founding, you take preservation of what remains of your historic structures very seriously. Demolition of the remaining 50 to 100-year-old homes is unacceptable in all but the direst of circumstances.
So imagine how the city’s residents respond to the demolition of a 200-year-old home in the heart of a Historic Preservation District made necessary because the owner, a Florida general contractor, did not take adequate steps to support the structure before digging a two-foot deep trench around the buildings foundation, resulting in the collapse of its load-bearing walls?
Oh, by the way, the owner-contractor is the former mayor of the city; and, even though he no longer lives in the city, he remains the chairman of the Historic Architectural Review Board — the governing body appointed to consider and act on applications for demolition permits for structures 50-years-old, or older, within the city limits. The board also advises property owners and government agencies concerning maintenance, protection, enhancement and preservation of historic resources and may designate historic landmarks, among other tasks.
Claude L. Weeks, Jr, who goes by “Len”, has been at the heart of controversy in recent months, and yesterday finds him on the horns of another dilemma. Weeks and business partner Joe Boles, who is currently the Mayor of the City of St Augustine, FL, have been the subject of criticism in published reports questioning a “sweetheart” land lease they struck with the city on July 24, 1989. The twenty-year lease, which has been modified and extended, allows the two mayors to pay the city pennies-on-the-dollar for prime retail and restaurant space in the center of the tourist town. They have long since sold their interest in the businesses there, but continue to sublease the space to third parties, at prime rates, pocketing the difference in monthly rent.
Now Weeks is building a retail shopping village on property he owns within a city block between Hypolita, Spanish and Cordova Streets. Over the past 30 years, Weeks has collected properties, many of which have historical significance, along the Spanish Street corridor downtown, one block off the tourism mecca that is St George Street. Weeks buys, remodels, rebuilds, and renovates the properties making them available to businesses for rent. This morning, he told Historic City News that he has rehabbed hundreds of historic properties in the area and had no idea that what he was doing to the Don Pedro Fornell house was putting it in jeopardy of collapse.
Weeks contends that the 1804 home, which he has owned for more than 11-years, was the one he was most proud of since it was the oldest documented property that he owned. Although he sought and received demolition permits for the surrounding buildings to make way for the new construction, he says preservationists, and members of the town’s historic restoration community have misjudged him with their allegations that he intentionally destabilized the building so that he could clear the corner lot entirely before building his shops.
“There is no way in hell he would have gotten a demolition permit, I don’t care if he is the chairman of the Historic Architectural Review Board,” one neighbor who is familiar with the former mayor and the project said at the site today.
“It’s really a matter of common sense. Whether you are a licensed contractor or not, would you dig a trench around a two story house with heavy coquina walls that was built in the early 19th century?” asked the son of the former owner of the building who grew up in the home and whose father sold the ancient property to Weeks.
The City Archeologist, who conducted a required dig at the site before and during the excavation as required by local ordinance, was said to have informed Weeks that the foundation was not uniform, a fact acknowledged by the owner to Historic City News today. In some places, the coquina stone sat directly on dirt and not on any foundation at all.
“To dig those trenches around the exterior of the house before City staff passed the work is only one of Len’s huge errors,” wrote on Historic City News reader on their website. “Know why he was rushing and screwed up? He wanted to get in his disabled parking apron while the City was repaving. Cheaper for him.”
Weeks’ critics who contend that this was an avoidable accident, at best, say “Len had his crew dig 2-ft deep trenches, he knew what that meant without support. He was fully prepared to rebar the concrete pour without approval from the city.”
Some in the area who have been gathering like friends attending a wake, have said, “The building had to be demolished — because THAT is what Len planned all along.”
As of today, St Augustine City Manager John Regan has tasked Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield with doing a full, chronological report on “what happened” including what permits were pulled, what inspections were done, and how closely the work followed the city protocol, according to Isabelle Lopez, City Attorney.
For the record, Weeks denies having any plans to demolish the Don Pedro Fornell house, rather he would have featured the building in the cluster of shops. He denied that he was considering a PUD in order to get around the demolition restrictions. He says he will rebuild the structure new and attempt to salvage any of the original materials reasonably possible.
<em>Photo credits: © 2014 Historic City News staff photographer</em>
Tags: archeological dig, Cronyism, environmental endangerment, heritage tourism, historic preservation, professional competence
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