Politics & Government

Behind Douglass House demolition, anguish and distrust loomed

The man who sued state Rep. James Beverly last month to try to reclaim costs associated with tearing down the historic Douglass House has dropped his lawsuit.

Last week, Lou Patel pulled his suit against Beverly, D-Macon, but said he still has an opportunity to refile it, depending on “what (Beverly) does, how he behaves.”

At the core of his complaint, Patel said he bought the house based on Beverly’s promise that he would work to get the house moved to make room for a parking lot for a Dunkin’ Donuts shop that Patel plans to build next door.

Months passed with no viable plan to relocate the house, and Patel found an engineer who said the house was beyond repair. It was demolished last month.

Patel’s lawsuit asked for Beverly to pay for demolition costs, plus penalties, which totaled more than $310,000.

On Monday, Beverly said he was never officially served with the lawsuit before it was dropped.

“It’s unbelievable that he would have the audacity to sue me when I was trying to do my dead-level best to try to help the community,” Beverly said.

The state representative said he would meet with his lawyer to determine the next steps.

“It’s unbelievable because this guy has attempted to damage my reputation,” Beverly said. “It’s not going to go away just because you’ve uncocked your gun and put it in your sheath.”

SPOTLIGHT ON HISTORIC HOME

The Douglass House has historical significance because it was home to Charles Douglass, a successful black Macon businessman in the early 1900s who developed and managed the Douglass Theatre downtown for nearly 30 years. The house had been vacant about 42 years.

The saga of the house, along with the next-door Tremont Temple Baptist Church -- which was razed so Patel could build the doughnut shop -- is one of historic preservationists and public officials trying in vain to save the house.

They sometimes worked behind the scenes late at night and on weekends, according to various emails about efforts to save the house that The Telegraph reviewed.

Jennifer Look, a six-year resident of Macon, started a petition drive against Patel’s moves to demolish the Douglass House and was surprised to learn that it led to his lawsuit getting pulled from court.

Officials with Dunkin’ Donuts, of which Patel is a franchisee, emailed Patel about the petition. Patel forwarded the Dunkin’ Donuts email on to Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert.

Reichert responded that he had told Patel the lawsuit was not a good idea, suggesting that he dismiss before Beverly answered it.

“I will call my lawyer tomorrow to drop it,” Patel replied. The case was dismissed Dec. 2.

Look said the fights over the Douglass House had been a learning experience for everyone, including preservationists.

“I think the next time this comes up, they will have more success in preserving important Macon stuff,” she said.

Patel said his engineer found the house on the verge of collapse. He also said preservationists should have moved faster.

“If it was so historical to them, if it was so sentimental for them, they should have saved it,” Patel said. “Historic Macon thinks everything is savable. Well, then save it. Go and buy stuff, and save it.”

Ethiel Garlington, who took over as executive director of Historic Macon earlier this year, said Bibb County has more than 6,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though many of them are well-maintained by their owners, others -- including buildings owned by governments -- are not.

“There are a lot of significant buildings in our community that should be saved, and we can’t buy and sell them all ourselves,” he said.

Garlington and Look said Macon-Bibb County government needs to reform to allow oversight or appeals in a case such as the Douglass House, where the engineer’s report led to an order for repair or demolition. That happened outside the purview of Planning & Zoning, which had reviewed previous demolition applications.

In an email to The Telegraph, Reichert said everyone, including the government, should be more proactive.

“Going forward, I’m hoping to identify the group or groups to take the lead in this effort; the government has a role to play, but perhaps not the lead role,” he said. “Next, we need to identify ‘historic’ structures (not every old structure is necessarily historic) that are in jeopardy and make a plan to get the structure into the hands of a group that will not only spearhead the rehabilitation of the structure but the adaptive re-use of the structure in a manner that complements economic and community development.”

A LONG ROAD TO DEMOLITION

Patel first bought Tremont Temple Baptist Church for the site of a Dunkin’ Donuts, closing on the property in March. He told The Telegraph he had a verbal agreement with the Medical Center, Navicent Health, to acquire alleyways that would give him enough room to build his restaurant.

A Navicent official responded to that claim Monday.

“We were clear with Mr. Patel and his representative from the moment that we were approached that we would not provide access to or sell Navicent Health property,” said Tim Slocum, the hospital’s assistant vice president of hospitality services.

In March emails to Reichert, Slocum suggested that Patel could develop the site with less parking or change the size of the building. Or, Slocum wrote, Patel could buy the property where the Douglass House stood.

By early April, Reichert was proposing to move the house with $20,000 from Patel and to convert it into city offices. By mid-April, Beverly was checking in with Reichert’s office to see if that effort was moving forward.

By May 16, Mercer University President Bill Underwood said in an email, “I am concerned about time getting away on the Douglass House.”

Underwood proposed a land deal, with the Douglass House getting moved temporarily to Tattnall Square Park and then onto the parking lot of the current senior center, which Mercer would buy and lease back to the city for several years. Other properties along Second Street and a field would be part of the deal.

A week later, Reichert was trying to make parts of the land swap happen.

“We need to move quickly on this,” he wrote to staff members May 22.

On June 25, Reichert wrote Underwood to say Beverly was trying to trim the costs of moving the house.

“We are running out of time,” Reichert wrote.

LATE NIGHTS, ANGUISH

That Reichert email was sent at 9:28 p.m. on a Wednesday. It wouldn’t be the last. From then on, much of the fight for the Douglass House took place on nights and weekends.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-July, Reichert asked the hospital if it could use the house as an African-American wellness center. A Medical Center employee responded at 7:33 p.m. Sunday, closing with “Have a great rest of your weekend!”

An email from Slocum on July 22 to partners of the Central Georgia Health System said, “We’ve been told the cost to move this structure is approximately $330,000, with approximately $120,000 of that currently committed.”

On the last Saturday in July, as a meeting with Planning & Zoning was pending, Underwood said Mercer would buy the house for $200,000 -- the amount Patel paid for it -- if it passed an inspection and could be reused.

Several more emails followed, with Medical Center President and CEO Ninfa Saunders offering another house lot on Highland Terrace, an offer made at 10:42 p.m. on a Sunday.

The next day, Underwood sent an email saying “we have done all that we can. ... At this point we are back to square one.”

The day after, Underwood renewed Mercer’s offer to buy the house for $200,000.

“We will pay nothing more than what Mr. Patel paid. Frankly, I do not trust these people,” he wrote.

Patel on Friday had his own accusations. Besides his now-dropped lawsuit accusing Beverly of fraud, he said people kept making promises they wouldn’t keep.

“I just hope people do right things in the future and not lie all the time either,” Patel said.

In the late July emails, Reichert told Patel’s broker that he should consider using only the Tremont Temple lot to start his business quickly. Patel soon responded, saying his costs exceeded what Mercer offered, but concluded, “I remain committed to a workable solution.”

A week later, Patel’s broker said moving the house was the only option to save it.

By the middle of August, the hospital and Mount De Sales Academy were offering lots for relocating the house.

By late September, contractor Chris Sheridan said the Douglass House would cost about $100,000 to move. Patel was agreeing to donate $15,000 to move the house, a change from the $20,000 he’d inked in a memorandum of understanding with Beverly, according to Sheridan’s account.

But the rest of the money to move the house just wasn’t there, and by mid-November, demolition of the Douglass had begun.

Writer Andy M. Drury contributed to this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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