Owners plan restoration of long-vacant downtown Johnson City building

David Floyd • Oct 21, 2019 at 7:32 PM

The owners of a long-vacant Johnson City building, which one local economic development official has called the “poster child of neglect,” are getting ready to restore the structure’s facade.

The “1888 building,” called that because of the date stamp at the top of one of the walls, sits at 107 Buffalo St. in the city’s downtown core. The building has been empty for a few decades.

California-resident Gemma Velasquez, who owns the building with her husband Murray Cruickshank, said Friday that plans for the restoration have been in the works for about year. She said Ernest Campbell Development, a Johnson City contractor, will manage the project, and Artistry in Glass, based in Limestone, will restore the antique glass above the building’s storefront windows. The project will also involve repairs to the building’s masonry.

Velasquez declined Friday to give the dollar value of the couple’s planned investment into the building, but said it will be “significant and meaningful.” She and Cruickshank have spent about $30,000 to conduct roof work on the building, Velasquez said.

Velasquez said she and Cruickshank, who is a chef, purchased the building about 20 years ago when they were living in Jonesborough. At the time, they intended to turn the space into a restaurant. The couple owns a catering business in California.

“Unfortunately, we don’t live in the area any longer, so we were unaware that it had needed such work and the facade had fallen into such disrepair until we were made aware of it by the city,” Velasquez said Friday. “And at that point, we started looking for contractors.”

She said city made them aware of the building’s issues roughly a year ago.

During a June 27 meeting, the city’s Board of Dwelling Standards found the structure “unfit for human habitation,” according to a notice taped to the front of the building. The board ordered Velasquez and Cruickshank to, within 90 days, provide a work plan that included repairing the facade, repairing the storefront, repairing the broken glazing and replacing the masonry.

Jim Sullivan, the city’s chief building official, said that plan was submitted to the city as part of the permit process, and at this point, work on the building will involve repairs to the facade — new storefronts, new windows, repairs to the brick and mortar and the building’s cornice work.

“We got here as a result of a notice of violation and a threat of condemnation and demolition,” Sullivan said Monday. “I think we’ve finally gotten the owners shaken up enough ... that they’ve gotten to the point now where they’ve hired a contractor.”

Sullivan said the building has recently suffered from broken windows, graffiti and a leaking roof, which has impacted neighbors. Sullivan said the graffiti has been covered up.

Sullivan said the city is hopeful the exterior repairs will lead to interior work on the structure, which will allow the owners to lease the space to a tenant. Velasquez said Friday that she and Cruickshank envision a business eventually occupying the space.

Because the building is located in the city’s downtown historic district, work on the structure will require historical review from the city to ensure it meets the aesthetic expectations of the district. Johnson City Senior Planner Matthew Manley said Monday the work on the building’s facade has received a certificate of appropriateness, which recognizes that the project meets the city’s requirements.

Back in 2013, inspectors found multiple holes in the building’s roof and that the structure’s street-side parapet wall was leaning to the point that they were concerned loose bricks would fall on pedestrians. The Board of Dwelling Standards ordered Velasquez and Cruickshank to rebuild the parapet and fix the roof, repairs that Sullivan said Monday the owners finished.

Sullivan said the 1888 building sits at the gateway of the building’s downtown area for motorists and pedestrians traveling along Main Street.

“If that’s looking good, it speaks well for the rest of the opportunities downtown,” he said.

Velasquez said Friday she and Cruickshank want to ensure the restoration is sensitive to the history and architectural integrity of the structure.

“We purchased the building because we love the building,” Velasquez said. “We thought it was beautiful and we’d like to restore it to her former glory.”

Velasquez said she and Cruickshank aren’t incredibly wealthy people.

“The building was a significant investment for us when we purchased it, and the restoration ... represents significant commitment by us monetarily and regards to our resources,” she said. “Again, we’re not wealthy. I don’t even think we’d consider ourselves comfortable. We’re just normal, everyday working folk.”