By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The Blair Street apartment complex had a history of code violations and forced condemnations long before the city decided last week to purchase and demolish it.
The violations stretch back to at least 2006, when planning officials ordered one of the property’s dilapidated units torn down. A year later, the city declared other units unfit and dangerous to public safety.
Property owners never were fined for the violations, said City Planner Pat Falkner, and eventually the structures were condemned and left vacant for four years.
Ward 3 City Councilman Jim Newell suggested the city dropped the ball. At Tuesday’s council meeting, Newell questioned Falkner about the city’s handling of the buildings and wondered if it could have demolished them without buying them.
In a previous interview with the Daily Journal, Newell said the city could have forced property owners to fix the buildings had it more aggressively enforced the codes. Failing that, it could have demolished the structures and put a lien on the property record.
Falkner said the city tried to work with the owners rather than slapping them with fines. He also said that while Tupelo could have demolished the buildings without buying them, it might not have solved the problem.
“If the property remained in private hands, someone could have built another set of apartments on that property,” Falkner said. “It’s one of the few vacant properties zoned multi-family in the city. We felt it was in our best interest if we controlled it.”
The Blair Street Apartments occupy the corner of Blair Street and Clayton Avenue. All three buildings are dilapidated and known to attract squatters and drug users.
In 2008, a California businessman named Ray Trujillo told city planners he’d spend at least $200,000 renovating the property. He’d transform the eyesore into an upscale, gated apartment community with fresh paint, hardwood floors, new appliances and other amenities.
With the city’s approval, Trujillo purchased the property that year from its previous owner, David Henson of Downtown Partners LLC, and began to make improvements. He cleaned the site, painted the buildings and started constructing a wall around the site. The city didn’t issue code violations as long as the work continued.
But everything stopped about a year later when Trujillo became gravely ill, said city code enforcement officer Debra Byrd. And the project was put on an indefinite hold.
The Daily Journal was unable to reach Trujillo. It did, however, discover that around the time work stopped in Tupelo, Trujillo faced financial and legal woes in Albuquerque, N.M.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, Trujillo pleaded guilty in April 2010 to five misdemeanor counts related to problems at an apartment complex he owned in the city. He was fined $25,000 and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.
Numerous people were sickened and one girl died because of a series of code violations in his complex, including failure to provide workable heaters and smoke detectors.