I sometimes take Evergreen Avenue in the West End to get to work. On a recent Friday morning it was blocked off because of a fire. I glanced down the street and could see a lot of fire equipment. I had one fleeting thought: I hope it's not that nice building in the middle of the block.
Sadly, it was. The lovely, 12-unit, early 20th century building at 45-51 Evergreen was destroyed and had to be demolished. No one was injured, thankfully, but the airy, elegant, railroad-style condominiums, with high ceilings, fireplaces and other amenities, are gone.
Last week I was talking about it with a friend from the West End who once lived in the building, and we wondered if the ills that can plague condominiums were the cause of this trajedy.
Most condo complexes are well-run, but sometimes things can go wrong. When they do, it's usually when the complex becomes dominated by investor owners, rather than resident owners. The absentee investors may chose not to engage in the management of the complex, or not vote to increase fees or bolster reserves for long-term maintenance. If the building starts to go downhill, it may become more attractive to investors. Sometimes condominum boards, which are required by statute to exist, cease to function.
"The statute assumes owner occupancy," said William Breetz, executive director of the Connecticut Urban Legal Initiative Inc. at the University of Connecticut School of Law and an expert in condominium law.
Some of the potential problems with outside owners can be seen at Bushnell on the Park in downtown Hartford. In 2002, a Waterbury-based corporation bought more than two-thirds of the 180 condo units. The company, called Bushnell Regency LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this spring, owing almost $275,000 in unpaid condo fees. The building is well-maintained, residents tell me, but is there enough money for the long-term repairs any aging building needs? (Other owners are in court trying to find out.)
So did this happen on Evergreen Avenue?
As it happens, the building had a well-known resident-owner, who says no. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, former Hartford city councilwoman and school desegregation activist, said that although only three of the units were owner-occupied, including hers, most of the other owners were in the area and still active with the building. "I kept them engaged," she said.
She said the board, of which she was vice president, had a long-term maintenance plan to restore the building and was well into it. She said exterior lighting had been replaced, and that new windows were being installed at the time of the fire.
The fire started at 5 a.m., about the time Ms. Sheff gets up, and she said she first thought someone had left something on the stove. But she opened a door and faced heavy smoke, and knew she had to get out.
"I lost everything," Ms. Sheff said: her mother's Bible, family pictures, her awards and citations, her keys and driver's license; even, sadly, her cat. She said last week the loss comes to her now from time to time, such as the evening she was in the grocery store and went to buy filters for her coffee maker, only to remember that the machine had brewed its last.
You don't committ to a decades-long battle to desegregate Hartford schools without spirit, strength and hope. Ms. Sheff is a wonderful example of how to deal with such a loss.
She was first thankful — blessed — that no human life was lost. She went out and bought some musk oil, a favorite. She was planning to start a class at the Universioty of Hartford in website construction the following Monday, and she went. She is slowly re-collecting the necessities of life.
The cause of the fire is unknown. It could have been caused by someone sneaking into the building, which she said had happened once or twice. It could have been the furnace, it could have been electrical. Would it have mattered in this case if all the units had been owner-occupied? Probably not; we'll never know.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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