At Tuesday’s hearing in the 111th District Court, attorneys for the City of Laredo and Rosendo (Chendo) Carranco agreed that the City can begin to address health, safety, and nuisance issues for Carranco’s abandoned, degraded, asbestos-laden hospital building in the Heights.
Judge Monica Notzon granted an extension of the City’s temporary injunction and directed both parties to a mediation hearing before former District Judge Raul Vasquez. She has set a December 5 status check on that mediation.
A 20-YEAR FURLOUGH FROM CITATIONS & FINES
The City’s suit seeks to remedy the decrepitude of Carranco’s monument to civic dereliction that over a span of 18 years has deteriorated into a public health and safety hazard. Carranco — who has enjoyed a two-decade furlough on City citations or fines for negligence and failure to secure or maintain the facility — has singlehandedly driven down property values and the quality of life in one of the oldest sectors of the City, and in doing so has blighted an entire neighborhood with the pronounced decline that radiates so visibly from his high hilltop property.
Carranco’s attorney Donah T. (Zone) Nguyen and City attorney Kristina Hale agreed that the City can begin addressing the building’s health and safety issues while exacting a lien against the property for those mitigation costs.
According to Hale, the City will first have to deal with populations of bees that live in and around the facility before mowing the grounds and addressing rodent, bird, and wildlife access to the interior of the structure. She said that removing asbestos is a priority that will come at a cost of $1 million. She added that an assessment by a structural engineer will provide vital information on the soundness of the building.
Hale said that Carranco has been explicit about not being able to pay for any remediation costs.
She stressed that condemnation of the old hospital property is not a possibility because the City would have to establish that it needed the property for a specific purpose. She said the City will close Tilden and Mier streets to limit access to the facility.
Should Carranco opt to donate the building to the City, he would avoid having to paying City-imposed liens for remediation costs and fines for non-compliance that accrue daily.
Carranco, who usually forgoes attendance at meetings at which the hospital property is the subject of discussion, was present at the Tuesday hearing, lending a measure of theatrics to the otherwise dry, legal proceedings.
TOO MANY HUGS, KISSES, & HANDSHAKES
Carranco moved about the courtroom before and after the hearing like an eccentric elder at a wedding, spreading goodwill in a few too many hugs, kisses, and handshakes, while assuring any who would listen that he had a buyer for the hospital who wanted to reconfigure it into a home for veterans.
Carranco offered kisses to the pates of some of the male City employees who had been summoned to share what they had documented after an onsite visit to the old hospital facility; and there were hugs for people he acknowledged he had never before met.
The City inspectors, code enforcement officers, and administrators filled two benches at the rear of the courtroom.
Louis LaVaude and Margarita Araiza were there, too, members of the City Council-appointed ad hoc committee that has endeavored to steer the fate of the abandoned toxic monolith.
Araiza owns a home a block away from the hospital campus, as does Melissa Cigarroa, who was also present at the hearing.
Photographs taken by Laredo Police officers on October 25 document and support the findings of members of the staffs of the City’s Environmental Services Department, the Health Department, the Building Development Services Department, the Fire Department, and the Police Department.
Carranco’s neglect for his own property has singlehandedly driven down property values and the quality of life in one of the oldest sectors of the City, and in doing so has blighted an entire neighborhood with the pronounced decline that radiates from his high hilltop property.
BONHOMIE DIDN’T GO TOO FAR
Carranco’s bonhomie on Tuesday morning did not diminish the weight of the hearing or the succinct written assessments by department heads and the photo documentation that the City entered into evidence to establish the true condition of the interior of the building that has been ravaged for two decades by looters, vandals, vermin, batshit, and water.
Carranco has repeatedly stated he has a buyer for the building, but has not produced one or a contract for the sale.
It seems a stretch that there could be a buyer who would willingly undertake a million dollar asbestos and lead paint removal and remediation as a first step to be able to work inside a building in need of perhaps tens of millions of dollars more of gutting and reconstruction.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Carranco told Araiza minutes before Tuesday’s hearing that he would share all appraisals and studies of the building, documents that the ad hoc committee has repeatedly requested over the last several months.
Carranco apologized to Araiza and Cigarroa, telling them he was “sorry for the appearance of the building,” though not addressing the magnitude of the public nuisance and health hazard he has created and the wholesale impact of his neglect on their neighborhood and the cityscape.
CARRANCO’S SHOUT OUT TO THE JUDGE
Once the hearing was underway and it was clear that witness testimony would not be required from the City investigators and staff who represented several departments, Judge Notzon told them they were free to leave.
As they emptied two benches to make their en masse exit, Carranco said aloud across the courtroom to Judge Notzon, “I would stay if I were them, because you are very pretty.”
This writer tried to calculate the effect of Carranco’s odd, loud comportment on the somber decorum of a District Court hearing, and tried, too, to do the math on the more quantifiable costs of having had that many City employees at a court hearing, what it had cost to have that many administrators and staff members from six departments at the onsite inspection of October 25, the cost of time and energy expended by so many to write reports and prepare for Tuesday’s hearing, the cost to the City of staffers who will mow Carranco’s hospital property because he won’t, the cost of firefighters and police officers called to fires in a building that is so dangerous at night for its lack of visibility.
According to Hale, Carranco agreed to post six guards at the hospital site on Halloween night, and to post one security guard 24/7 thereafter at his expense.
Araiza, whose core preservation values are attuned to saving structures, summed up Tuesday’s hearing with, “Mr. Carranco flitted about the courtroom, remarking out loud on the beauty of the judge, sitting overly close to me, and exclaiming how the City was out in full force against him. I’m just happy to see today’s hearing might signal the start of some meaningful resolution to this neighborhood disgrace.”
Cigarroa, too, said she was hopeful that the outcome of City action would come to a just resolution. “I think the decision by the Court has been long overdue, but I appreciate that the City is serious about fixing this public health hazard. The City attorney was thorough in documenting all the problems with the building, so I am confident that this issue isn’t going to stop moving forward,” she said, adding, “I’m sad that this piece of Laredo history doesn’t have a second chance for a new story, but the reality is that the building is uninhabitable. It’s time to move forward, and I’m grateful that the City is able to make that happen.”
Carranco is a CPA and a developer who in other aspects of his business life has enjoyed success and accolades for community service. On Tuesday morning he seemed oblivious that the tipping point was long behind him to save a real estate investment that had become an 18-year-old environmental eyesore to the City, that the free pass courtesy of previous City administrations who had written him not one single code enforcement violation until a couple of months ago — had expired.
That bus has stopped, out of gas at Logan and Mier.
City staff from six departments compiled reports after an October 25 onsite inspection of Carranco’s hospital facility.
The following were their findings, by department.
The report submitted by John Porter, director of Environmental Services, noted possible asbestos in insulation and ceiling structures; possible PCB in transformers and lighting ballasts; extensive water damage; possible lead-base paint issues; a partially filled drum of trichlorofluoronmethane, a chlorofluorocarbon once used as a refrigerant and no longer manufactured after 1996.
Accompanying photos gave evidence of ceilings and walls destroyed by looters who stripped the building of copper wiring and plumbing.
Dr. Hector Gonzalez, director of the City Health Department, called for immediate remediation by boarding up broken windows and doors; securing the perimeter; relocating large quantities of bees that could be provoked by the sounds of lawnmower engines; assessing the stability of the structure; and mowing the overgrown weeds. Among the safety and health risks he noted were exposed insulation and exposed asbestos; extensive mold; stagnant water in two elevator vaults; evidence of rodents, bat and pigeon guano; a partially empty barrel of a chemical compound called trichlorofluoronmethane; lead readings of 10 ppm in floor tiles (normal is 1 ppm); the possibility of vector borne diseases as broken windows have allowed rodents and small wildlife to inhabit the hospital.
In his report Ramon Chavez, director of the Building Development Services Department, noted: An unsafe structure “that is decayed, dilapidated;” unsafe equipment in disrepair relative to the boiler, elevator, electrical wiring; structure unfit for human occupancy; part of building likely to collapse; the unsecured, unsafe building is open to children.
The report cites numerous violations of the International Property Maintenance Code and lists the criteria that makes the old hospital a public nuisance.
The report of Fire Marshal Andres Jimenez Jr. lists a non-working sprinkler system; non-working fire alarm; holes and cracks in ceilings, floors, and walls; open wiring and missing slots in breaker boxes throughout; accumulation of combustible materials throughout; drug paraphernalia found within the building; mold throughout interior.
The photographs offer irrefutable detail of the overwhelmingly poor condition of the structure’s interior.
Though many of the hospital’s windows are gone, its massive interior doors seem intact, too heavy to steal and still able to hang on their hinges.
The pictures offer, too, a narrative of neglect that juxtaposes sadly with the noble, lifesaving mission of the Sisters of Mercy who have served this community for 123 years.
Their selfless work remains un-besmirched by neither the degradation of the facility that once bore their good name, nor by the man responsible for turning a symbol of healing and hope into an environmental hazard.