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Home | News | Story+Gallery: The Next Fire

Story+Gallery: The Next Fire

In June of this year, I wrote about two fires that have destroyed historic buildings in El Paso.

The first article was about the Krakauer Mansion at 1519 Golden Hill Terrace. This was a Trost home, owned by Frank Por, and an early morning fire destroyed this home and
large parts of the one next to it.

Also, in June I wrote about the John Wesley Hardin building and the fire that destroyed that building back in 2012.

Both fires were preventable. With a bit of preventative maintenance on the part of the owners, these buildings would still be standing today. So why do I bring these two buildings up?

I’m glad you asked.

Over the weekend I received two calls from people who live near Golden Hill Terrace. Both were calling about a small, abandoned apartment complex located at 1407 Golden Hill Terrace.

The building is a wreck. Their doors are busted open, the windows are all shattered, there are holes in the walls – it’s become a refuge for drug users, homeless people looking for a place to sleep, and teenagers looking for a place to party away from prying eyes.

This property is a fire – or crime scene –  waiting to happen.

El Paso has a problem with abandoned buildings. In the latter part of 2016, the City of El Paso decided to allow people to call 311 and reported buildings that are abandoned so that the City and/or the El Paso Police Department, Building Inspectors and the Fire
Department could address the situation.

When anyone sees a building or home that they feel is unsafe or vacant, simply call 311, and the complaint will be routed to city inspectors, the Vacant Building Registration or VBR crew and an inspection will be conducted.

“What happens when people call 311,” says Nick Torres retired fire inspector (when we spoke about the John Wesley Hardin building and the one on Golden Hill Terrace) “is if they say there are people in it or living in it the report goes to the Police Department, to the Building inspectors, and the Fire Department.”

The police will go to check and see if anyone is in there and to assess the condition of the people – are they trespassing, or are they living there. If they are living there, the Police will determine if the Fire Department needs to be sent to the site. It will then be determined if there an imminent danger to health and safety.

“The building guys and us,” said Torres, speaking of the Fire Department inspectors, “go out as soon as we get the email from 311.”

They will not only visit the home or building you’ve called about, but they will also talk to neighbors to find out if anyone is there and find out what if anything is going on.

“It’s gotten so bad,” said Torres, “that I started carrying 2×4’s in my truck, to temporally board up and secure the property.”

Yet this one property is still abandoned, open, and in worse shape now than when I first walked through it in June of this year.

“All the time, every time, there is someone in that building,” says Maria (names of witnesses have been changed at their request. Each one fears retaliation). “You can call the people the ones from the city, from the police, and nothing is ever done.”

“They had a birthday party in there,” said Maria’s husband. “You could hear all the noise from them to here!”

In fact, as I walked through the complex, you could tell there was a party held in the lower portion of the property. There were still balloons lying around, confetti, even a cupcake with a single candle sticking out of it.

I also noticed that a couple of stoves that were there back in June are missing and that a homeless person as moved into one of the apartments on the main level.

“It’s trash,” said Robert. “In the story about that building downtown, you said that if people call 311, it gets fixed. They would come and close it so none of the kids can get in there.”

Robert is right. When I met with Nick Torres, he did say the public should call.

“If the public is concerned about vacant properties, or historical vacant properties, they need to do their part, they need to report these buildings,” said Torres, “Not to City Reps, because City Reps are not the ones who go out and investigate them.”

“If they want to make a difference, they need to call 311 and report it. When they do, it’s going to notify several entities: the police department, the building department, and the Fire Marshall’s Investigating Unit.”

He also said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So here is a building that is obviously abandoned and one party away from being the
next fire on Golden Hill Terrace. Why has nothing been done?

I did try to find the owner, who resides in Socorro, but have had no luck at all.

“Someone does come to the place maybe once a month,” said Robert. “It’s a short visit, and then nothing changes. I tried to talk to him in July. He was telling me to mind my business.”

While looking into this property, I decided to search the Citizens Portal for the City of El Paso and see just what the city has done. For me, the most telling event is from July 18, 2018, that is when the city of El Paso took out a writ of entry.

One would think, after the city talking about wanting to tackle the issue of abandoned buildings that this one would be a prime candidate for them to board up and begin the process of taking it over. That, however, is not what the writ of entry was for.

This writ was so that the city could clean up the property. Total billed to the owner for the clean-up: $351.82

I reached out to the City of El Paso and received an email from Soraya Ayub, Lead Public Affairs Coordinator. Her answers to my questions left me wanting.

“[The] initial case was submitted under an incorrect address in May of 2018,” wrote Soraya Ayub. “The address provided was 1407 Rio Grande. Building safety Division conducted an inspection. However, there is no such address; closest was 1405 Rio Grande.”

The address at 1405 Rio Grande is a vacant lot. However, when you search out the 1407 Rio Grande via Google Maps, it is the lower address for the same property on Golden Hill Terrace. It is the same property.

“After locating the correct parcel, a case was created. The Building Safety Division worked with the owner to secure the structure in July of 2018,” writes Ayub.

I take issue with two of Ms. Ayub’s comments. The property – if you look at the Google Maps screenshot – shows the garage for the property being 1407 Rio Grande. That is part of the same property.

The second thing I take issue with is that the building was secured in July of 2018.

Because of the fire in June of 2018, I spent a lot of time on Golden Hill Terrace. Each time, the building was open and unsecured.
I followed up with both Maria and Robert who said that they simply don’t remember the building ever being bordered up this year.

“Go and look by where the doors and where the windows are,” said Robert. “If anything had been put there you would see where the holes were then. Nothing has ever been put up there.”

“He says the truth,” said Maria, with her husband nodding in agreement. “If the peoples from the city are saying the truth, that they make an order for them to put up boards, then all they did was take the word of the owner that it was done.”

Ms. Ayub also indicated that the property was to be boarded up the weekend of December 22nd.

Was it? No.

On the evening of December 25th, I drove by the property one final time, just after 6 p.m. and it was still wide open. So, I must question: Was anything done at this small complex?

You can see from the attached screenshots that when the property was dirty, the city simply went and cleaned it up and billed the property owner.

Could they not do the same when it comes to securing an open property that could very well be the next fire we report about? Or, are they waiting until the property becomes a major crime scene? I really wonder.

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