One year later, fire site still empty

Published 7:24 am Friday, January 15, 2010

On the one-year anniversary of one of the most devastating fires in Austin’s history, city officials are still dealing with the hole left downtown.

The Jan. 15, 2009, fire, which started on an evening that saw temperatures hit 15 degrees below zero, destroyed multiple Main Street buildings and eventually set off a dispute between the city and a property owner.

Maria Leon, who owned several of the ravaged buildings, initially refused to clean up the property, which the city deemed “hazardous.” Her attorney, Minneapolis-based Douglas Nepp, said the city accused her of arson, which kept Leon from receiving insurance and ultimately cleaning up the site. City officials have denied accusing Leon of arson, though there is an ongoing arson investigation at the site.

In June, Leon conceded her argument and the two sides reached a settlement that will allow the city to ultimately assess the owner for clean up costs. City attorney Craig Byram said he expects to file an affidavit of cost in court soon, a document that would explicitly state how much the city believes Leon owes.

Leon and her attorney would have roughly 20 days to challenge the city’s numbers before a judgment is issued, Byram said.

With the agreement in place, the city was finally able to bid out demolition work for the site. Working through the fall, crews removed debris and left the site a flat square of dirt. Because Leon still owns the property, that is how it’ll remain for now, unless she and the city can reach another agreement or if she builds something new.

City administrator Jim Hurm on Thursday said he hopes something gets going at the site soon.

Though acknowledging the city’s hands are somewhat tied because it is private property, Hurm said he’d like to see the fire site and the nearby plaza area revitalized.

“It’s obvious that (the area) is a very important part of the community, and we want to make sure the right thing goes in there,” Hurm said.

But the administrator said he doesn’t foresee the city using eminent domain to take control of the site.

Hurm said that process would likely be expensive and could take longer than simply working with Leon.

Still, even if the city doesn’t take control of the site, officials still have their ideas on what would be a good fit.

Community development director Craig Hoium said previously that a mix of retail storefronts and possibly upper-level apartments would work well.

However, Hoium said he hasn’t thought of particular businesses — and he added that it doesn’t matter much to him if existing retailers moved back in, or if a franchise possibly came to downtown.

Other area business owners agree with Hoium that more retail would be a good fit.

Bonnie Mogen, former owner of the Main Street Hallmark, said in an earlier interview that anything that can sell would be welcome.

“As long as it brings retail, I think it’s good,” she said.

Suzanne Schmidt, who works at Bendixen Jewelry on Main Street, said new shops and apartments could help revitalize downtown.

She also said an upscale restaurant, possibly Italian, would be a good fit.

“It would be nice to have our downtown come back to what it used to be,” Schmidt said.