When he was preparing to move to France, the artist Robert Crumb filled his sketchbooks with drawings of steel telephone poles and industrial streetlamps, the webs of wire that crisscross over our heads wherever we walk. No one ever notices this visual noise, he said in the documentary Crumb, even though it surrounds us everywhere. He needed to set it down on paper because he wanted to be able to render America from abroad, and he couldn't trust his own memory to depict it accurately.
There are parts of our cities so ugly that we mentally edit them out of existence. Take, for instance, Eureka's former Downtowner Motel, which takes up a whole city block next door to the Eureka Inn. Once a thriving little corner of the county's hospitality industry, the Downtowner has spent most of the last decade crumbling into ruins. The facade of the old office building is now a jumble of plywood, tar paper and bare sheetrock. Years-old graffiti scribblings grace a fence, and piles of bricks and detritus clutter the old parking lot. A couple of years ago, after multiple complaints to the police concerning the vagrants and thrill-seeking teenagers who had claimed the place for their own, the lower windows were boarded over and the entire site surrounded by a cyclone fence. Most of us, long accustomed to the buildings' decay, have unconsciously taught ourselves not to look at it any longer.
Linda Mitchell, a painter whose home is directly behind the building, doesn't enjoy that luxury. Though her backyard faces the Downtowner's rear -- probably the least blighted face of the complex, though that isn't saying much -- she has saved up years of anguish from calling the cops, receiving threats from vagrants and continually begging for simple maintenance, such as weed abatement.
Last week, Mitchell said that having the Downtowner as a neighbor is "like living with a rotting corpse." She has been attempting to lobby city government to do something about it, with only intermittent success.
"I've been calling and e-mailing people for years, and no one ever responds," she said last week. "Or they respond and say, 'Oh, that sounds really terrible -- we'll look into it.' And then they never write back."
Maybe more than anything, Mitchell resents the fact that it has fallen upon her to hold the broken-down motel to some sort of minimal standards. Shouldn't the owner of the property be a good citizen and keep his buildings up? Failing that, shouldn't city government compel him to do so?
These are utterly reasonable questions that have no particularly easy answers. From the property owner's side, what's lacking is capital -- a scarce commodity in the current economy. Kevin McKenny, a Cutten developer who currently holds title to the Downtowner, would like to restore the old motel to something resembling and even surpassing its former self. Until he finds an investment partner, those plans are on indefinite hold.
It's also a question of money from the city's side -- and also, perhaps, of political will. The Downtowner has been off and on City Hall's list of "Vacant and/or Boarded Buildings" since 2005, which has subjected McKenny to minor fines and inconveniences. The city could go a step further and declare the building a public nuisance, which would force the owner to abate the Downtowner's blight in one way or another, but that would inevitably be a costly action as well, one that would bring a flight of lawyers into the dispute. Money isn't in ample supply at City Hall, either. And for the city to crack down would also mean that they would be abandoning all hope of McKenny eventually making a deal to revive the place.
Barring that, it looks like we'll all be turning a blind eye to the blight the Downtowner offers our cityscape for many years to come.
The Downtowner is parked at one edge of what was, and what someday may be again, a vibrant little center of Eureka life on the upper end of the F Street Corridor. Across the corner is the Eureka Inn -- once the city's centerpiece, it has only this year struggled back to life under a new owner (and is struggling still). A block away is the Morris Graves Museum of Art, housed in the town's beautifully restored Carnegie Library. Though it's also a far cry from its glory days, the old Eureka Theater is back hosting live performances and special film showings. The neighborhood is studded with architectural gems, including the still-active Labor Temple on E Street.
J Warren Hockaday, president of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, said earlier this week that issues such as visual blight and the quality of the built environment are very important to his members, though he did stress that he is aware that solutions are not always easy to find.
"The vast majority of people here either grew up here or chose to come here," Hockaday said. "And one of the reasons they chose to do that is the quality of life. So things like [the Downtowner] certainly chafe, when you come to it from that perspective. But then again -- someone has to come along and write a check."
In the brief period during which he agreed to speak to the Journal last week, Downtowner owner Kevin McKenny, who is also an elected board member of the Humboldt Community Services District, made clear that he isn't just waiting around for that check to fall into his lap. He said that he was trying to discuss partnerships with several hotel chains -- he mentioned Marriot, Hilton, Red Lion and Clarion -- to rebuild the Downtowner as a flagship Eureka hotel.
When he acquired the property in 2005, it didn't seem that things would take this long to develop. Several people in the local development and business community told the Journal that he has a reputation for high-quality projects and an able understanding of the governmental hoops required to get things done. Also, at the time there was hope on the horizon for that area of town; the Redding-based developer Americor had taken possession of the shuttered Eureka Inn and had planned to bring it back to life.
"At the time that I bought that property, the Eureka Inn was going to be rebuilt with the Americor people," McKenny said. "That all went south, and so did the economy. So now I have plans that are at an 80 percent stage to build that back into a hotel -- and a nice one."
McKenny briefly mentioned that he had a wider vision for the Downtowner, and for the neighborhood at large. It squared with the neighborhood's previous incarnation as a center for nightlife and the hospitality industry. From an urban planning perspective, he insinuated, it would make sense to try to concentrate that activity there again. "They've spread the hotel and restaurant industry all over this town," he said. "We're trying to create a center of activity." The city, he said, has not been sufficiently supportive.
(The Journal wished to talk with McKenny further about this, but was unable. A few hours after we spoke, he called back with a proposal: He said that he would sit down and talk with us about his plans if, in exchange, we agreed to put his architectural mock-ups on the cover of the paper in place of a photo of the property as it stands. When we declined to make this deal, he said he would not speak with us further. He wished it to be noted that he did not wish to abet negative thinking, which he said there was already too much of in Humboldt County.)
In December 2004, before McKenny purchased the site, Americor had asked the city to buy the lot with public money, raze it and turn it into adjunct parking for the Eureka Inn. Cindy Trobitz-Thomas, the city's director of redevelopment, said earlier this week that "it wasn't something that we were really going to be involved with."
Local real estate man Don Murrish owned part of the Downtowner at the time, a few months before he and another party with an interest in the site sold to McKenny. "It was in such bad shape it was very hard to figure out what to do with," Murrish said of the Downtowner. Still, he said that McKenny was very sharp, and that if anybody could figure out how those blighted old buildings might be rehabbed, McKenny was probably the guy.
Still, even those without a background in business or construction can legitimately question whether the Downtowner's current structures have any life left in them -- much less as the anchors of a high-profile chain hotel. For years, broken windows meant that rooms were exposed to the elements. The brickwork on some of the buildings was damaged during the January 2010 earthquake. Back behind the fencing you can see a general lack of protection from the elements -- peeled paint, exposed siding, missing shakes.
In all, there are currently 16 parcels on the city's list of abandoned or boarded-up buildings. Five of them are commercial properties; they include the old Arctic Circle building on Fifth Street and the ramshackle former headquarters of KVIQ-TV on Broadway. Though these buildings are in high-profile locations, right on the town's main drag, neither of them are in quite the spectacular degree of visual disrepair and blight that afflict the Downtowner.
Chief Building Official Brian Gerving, the man in charge of the boarded-up building program, said that McKenny -- who he worked for, several years ago -- has complied with the requirements of the program well. Unlike many, Gerving said last week, McKenny actually pays the $200 quarterly fee meant to cover the cost of city inspectors visiting the site and assessing it for fire hazards, crime prevention and structural integrity. At the same time, he said that he doesn't expect to see any major movement forward on the site anytime soon. "With the Downtowner, it's obviously going to be a major undertaking to rehabilitate the place, or to make it suitable for any purpose," he said.
There is another option open to the city, if it so wishes: To declare the site a public nuisance and order it rehabilitated or destroyed. Such an action may seem simple, on the face of it. Eureka's Municipal Code requires only a determination that a particularly blighted building has "a state of unsightliness so as to constitute a blighted condition detrimental to the property values in the neighborhood or otherwise detrimental to the public welfare."
But Gerving notes that it would take a long, long time to get to that point. The Municipal Code calls for a series of hearings and notifications, all of which would likely involve legal challenges and perhaps a full-on lawsuit in the end. Even the sheer demolition of a blighted site is not a simple or cheap matter; Murrish, the former owner, estimates that removal of the buildings would cost "a couple of hundred thousand dollars." With no financial backer at the moment, an independent like McKenny would likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to swallow that kind of loss.
So neighbors like Linda Mitchell will likely find themselves watchdogging the property for quite a while yet -- until the economy turns around and McKenny finds someone looking to cut some kind of a deal, or until the city decides that it's not worth the expense of putting up with the blight any longer.
She didn't sound too happy about the prospect. "I understand the permit process is difficult," she said. "If it were a year or two, I'd be patient. But it's been 13 years." And counting.