By Jordan Cohen
Members of The Avenue and Main, a community group, vow to continue keeping the grounds of the abandoned former Garfield School on Third Street “safe, secure and clean” after a decision by council to change the zoning of the area to residential from commercial.
Police say there have been a number of complaints about activities around the former school, which closed in 2003 when construction of Niles Middle School was completed.
“We have found empty baggies for drugs, needles, someone sleeping there, and a woman was assaulted,” said Barry Steffey, a group board member. Steffey spoke at a public hearing by council this week before lawmakers voted on the zone change — a move welcomed by the group.
“We’re doing this so that the building can be covered under our nuisance laws,” said Councilman Ed Stredney, D-3rd.
The building had been purchased at auction by a Michigan businessman four years ago who said he planned to use it as an office headquarters for his group of service stations.
According to council members, however, the owner planned to renovate only a portion of the structure and refused to pay to bring the rest of it into compliance with building codes. City officials refused to approve his plans and the situation stalemated.
“The company eventually went bankrupt, and nothing’s been done since,” Steffey said.
“We got so tired of the situation that for the last three years, we’ve been [patrolling] it, picking up trash and even mowing the lawn.”
Neither the property owner nor his representative, whom Mayor Ralph Infante identified as Mazza Real Estate, attended the hearing.
Steffey said he also favors the zone change because it will “keep unwanted businesses from our neighborhood” but added he had no objection to the corporate offices had the owner gone through with his plans. Council members say they are open to reverting zoning back to its commercial designation should a business that meets their requirements express interest in the building.
The mayor said the city is in no financial position to go through litigation to condemn the former school and demolish it. “We just don’t have that kind of money right now,” Infante said.