Some properties become dumps after a long period of neglect, slowly sliding into an irreversible state of disrepair. Others gain their notoriety due to absentee landlords and the presence of sketchy tenants, and a few have their fate sealed by a traumatic event like a fire.
The 10-unit residential property at 9 Wescott St. in Portland’s West End has been visited by all three of these plagues.
The incident that transformed this once elegant brick building into a neighborhood eyesore occurred on a Sunday morning in late October of 2006. Winds gusting at over 70 m.p.h. toppled a 165-foot-tall crane being used to construct Maine Medical Center’s new maternity wing. The crane tore through the front of 9 Wescott St. and smashed the roofs of two adjacent homes, both of which were subsequently torn down.
Chris Cameron was in his apartment at 9 Wescott at the time. It was a normal Sunday morning, and then “a flash later, a third of my living room was gone,” he said.
Cameron said the building’s exterior was “looking worn” before the accident, but its interior was in good shape.
After the accident, a black tarp was nailed to the front of the building to cover the damage, and Cameron and the other residents moved out. “No one’s officially lived there since October 30, 2006,” Cameron said.
Neighbor Philip Greenlaw said transient squatters soon made the building their home. The property’s owner, Massachusetts resident Kenneth Fisk, “left the place open,” said Greenlaw, and this invited a second disaster. “A while ago, street people were living there and it caught on fire and they boarded it up,” he said.
According to records on file at City Hall, the fire occurred on August 22, 2007. Inspectors later determined the property to be “secured and deemed unsafe,” and it was posted against occupancy, though another neighbor has since seen someone exiting the building with a bag of returnable cans.
Developer Richard Berman’s firm, Developers Collaborative, owns several properties in the area and is finishing construction of a residence hall for medical students nearby. Berman echoed the sentiment of many neighbors by describing 9 Wescott as “a blight in the neighborhood.”
It’s been over three years since the crane collapsed, but the black tarp — now ratty and ripped — is still nailed to the front of the building. The stairs leading to one of the two entrances are missing. Styrofoam cups and other trash continue to collect beneath the doorway of the other. “It’s disgusting,” a Crescent Street resident remarked. “Hospital workers sit and eat there and leave garbage.”
Graffiti has sprouted on the boarded-up windows and walls at the rear of the building. Charred beams, busted kitchen cabinets and a smashed TV monitor sit scattered in the snow on the back porch.
Fisk, the owner, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After the crane accident, Berman said his firm contacted Fisk to inquire about buying the property, but dropped the idea once they heard his asking price. The property’s tax-assessed value is $352,000, but Berman said Fisk was asking for much more. “I think at the time it was an awful lot of money to buy it,” he said.
Berman said he was also dissuaded by the expense required to renovate the crane-damaged, fire-gutted squat. “You can imagine what it would cost to fix that baby,” he said, adding that it would be cheaper to tear the 110-year-old structure down.
“Someone should do something with it,” Berman said. “It’s kind of an eyesore, but it’s quite beautiful.”
— Emily Guerin