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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Orange to demolish unfit units of World War II apartment complex

 

Last updated 7/11/2023 at 5:44pm

Soon, demolition crews will be tearing down nine buildings at a World War II-era apartment complex that became so dilapidated a judge condemned them as uninhabitable and unhealthy.

The Orange City Council Tuesday awarded a demolition contract that will cost $145,000 to remove the buildings at what was originally known as Gilmer Homes. City Planning Director Kelvin Knauf said the bill for the demolition will be sent to a company foreclosing on the owner. If the bill is not paid, the city will attach a lien to the property, meaning it cannot be sold without the back payment to the city.

The complex between Simmons Drive and First Street in the Old Orange Historic District has been known as Sabine Park Apartments in recent years. It was previously known as The Oaks Apartments.

The major problem at the apartments began after the Christmas freeze of 2022. Water pipes and sewer pipes broke in some of the units that still had tenants, Knauf said. Their calls to management to fix the problems were never answered.

Leaking water and raw sewage were running and pooling in the streets outside the unit. Tenants went weeks without running water or sewer service. The city stepped in to declare the units uninhabitable according to health laws. Knauf said city employees worked to help some tenants find new places to live.

The low-cost rental apartments also have some Section 8 housing tenants with rents subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Knauf said HUD was notified of the problems, but has not responded.

The city brought papers to have Municipal Judge Jim Bearden to condemn nine of the buildings in the complex. Knauf said the owners in Brooklyn, New York, and Aspen, Colorado, were notified of the hearing but did not attend. Judge Bearden condemned the buildings, which is allowing the city to have them demolished.

The contract went to the Lark Group based in Warren, Texas. Knauf said an Orange company had the low bid, but withdrew it early Tuesday morning before the city council meeting.

The Gilmer Homes cover a couple of city blocks and were built in the early days of the World War II shipbuilding boom which started in 1940 as the United States stoked its production of war materials.

Orange's population grew from 7,000 to an estimated 60,000 in a couple of years and housing was at a premium. The federal government first built Gilmer Homes to house workers and then developed the Riverside addition across Simmons that once had 5,000 units.

Gilmer Homes and Riverside were within walking distance of the major shipyards lining the Sabine River to allow workers to get to their jobs quickly and without using rationed gasoline to travel.

Both complexes were sold after the war to private owners. Through the years, Riverside became so dilapidated that it was eventually demolished in the mid-1980s. The city's Boat Ramp and Riverside Pavilion now use part of the old Riverside addition land.

Gilmer Homes was saved about 1990 when a Port Arthur developer acquired them. The one-story and two-story units were gutted, many down to their studs. After total renovations, the apartments were rented out again by the mid-1990s.

New tenants from all walks of life moved in. The apartments have a swimming pool and community room. A community learning center to help tutor school-age students was opened.

However, the complex changed owners again as far-away investors bought the property. In a few years, the apartments grew again into disrepair.

Hurricanes Ike and Harvey, along with the Sabine River flood of March 2016, also affected the complex, though renovations were made after Ike.

Today, the vacant condemned units are surrounded by overgrown grass and weeds. Doors are open and vandals or thieves have gotten inside to strip out anything that might be of value. Yellow "demolition" tape blocks fence openings to some units.

Knauf said tenants still live in other units of the complex. Some of those areas are also overgrown, though others look maintained. At a central dumpster, trash is piled up. Still, old live oak trees, apparently planted in the 1940s, are along streets and in parts of the complex.

 

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