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Las Vegas seeks more discretion to demolish dangerous buildings

Las Vegas officials signaled their desire Wednesday for broader authority over when dangerous abandoned buildings should be demolished, saying current standards established a quarter-century ago are likely holding the city back.

“It’s a different world than it was 25 years ago,” City Manager Jorge Cervantes said.

The City Council adopted its standards on dealing with dangerous buildings in 1995, according to code enforcement manager Vicki Ozuna, who provided a presentation to the council.

The guidelines were developed a year earlier by the International Code Council, an industry nonprofit that recommends uniform building codes.

There are 19 criteria for a dangerous building to be considered for demolition, Ozuna said, including lacking an exit or an exit pathway that’s unsafe, failing walls or the fact that the structure is at least 51 percent damaged.

But even if a building is charred, missing a roof or has been continuously boarded up, it may not meet the threshold for demolition.

“I know in some wards we have buildings that have been up for a long time, they’ve had multiple fires, multiple boardings, and unfortunately it just doesn’t meet the criteria for us to be able to take it down because it’s not burned enough,” Ozuna said.

She added: “I don’t think we can ask the fire department to slow down their response.”

With the burden for demolition fairly high, Las Vegas lawmakers requested that the city consider updating how it determines when a problematic structure may be torn down.

“Why should a property go in flames three times before we get to rectify?” Councilwoman Olivia Diaz said, urging the city to move quickly to address an issue that has disproportionately affected her downtown ward.

Demolitions rare

There were 150 dangerous building cases last year in Ward 3, which saw such cases rise from 112 in 2018, according to city data. No other ward had triple-digit cases in any of the past three years, although the problem is prevalent to lesser extents in downtown Ward 5 and nearby Ward 1.

Buildings deemed dangerous by the city are rarely demolished. Twenty of 261 dangerous buildings were torn down last year. Only nine of 147 such buildings have been destroyed so far this year, according to the city.

Ozuna said about half the time, however, property owners step up and take care of their site after a complaint is made. And the city is patient if an owner needs time. But sometimes, unless a building is deemed an immediate hazard, the city must simply board it up and hope that an owner will do something with it.

In some instances, the city has been successful in exercising due diligence to build a case against a property as a public nuisance, which is reason enough to demolish a site, according to Ozuna.

Citing fire and nuisance hazards, the city tore down the Moulin Rouge in 2017 and the El Cid Hotel in 2019.

“A lot of these types of buildings become magnets for vagrants and that type of activity so it’s a challenge sometimes to keep them boarded, keep them secure, until we can actually get the building down,” Ozuna said, speaking broadly.

Kevin McOsker, the city’s director of building and safety, said that general concepts about what constitutes a dangerous building remain unchanged from the 1994 codes adopted by the city.

Still, Cervantes said the city needed to update its rules as City Attorney Bryan Scott said he would survey neighboring jurisdictions in search of a faster path to demolitions.

“This is something we can’t take lightly,” Diaz said.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.