By Thomas Gallick | Staff Writer
Kent State University is working to expedite the demolition of nine vacant houses it owns near the Esplanade walkway expansion project and increase the police presence in the area following a Saturday house fire authorities are calling “suspicious.”
Firefighters responded to a blaze at about 5:30 a.m. Saturday at a vacant house the university owns near the Esplanade worksite and had the fire under control by 7 a.m. One Kent firefighter whose name has not been released was injured fighting the fire when the first floor of the former boarding house at 128 S. Lincoln St. collapsed.
“He was treated and released, and he is back to work,” Kent Fire Chief Dave Manthey said. “We were lucky.”
Manthey said the investigation of the fire had been turned over to KSU because the Esplanade houses are technically part of campus. He said because the house was vacant, his initial suspicion was that arson may have caused the blaze.
“In the past there had been some activity in (the house) — people in and out of it,” he said.
The home was awaiting demolition as part of its Esplanade walkway expansion, which will stretch from Hilltop Drive to Haymaker Parkway across Lincoln, Willow and Erie streets. KSU has made millions of dollars of real estate purchases in the area in order to knock the houses down to build the walkway.
KSU spokeswoman Emily Vincent said the school hopes to begin abatement work on the remaining houses, located on East College Avenue, within two weeks, after completing the necessary paperwork.
“In light of the (suspicious fire) in the past week, we are doing the best we can to accelerate that process,” Vincent said.
The university demolished the remains of the house at 128 S. Lincoln St. immediately following the fire for safety reasons.
She said the university hopes to complete the demolition of the nine remaining vacant homes, located on College Avenue, Lincoln Street and Willow Street, in December.
“In the meantime, we’re trying to make sure the nine remaining houses (stay) boarded up and secured,” she said.
The KSU Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the properties KSU owns off of the northwest edge of campus, have pledged an increased police presence in the area.
Officer Michquel Penn said KSU police already patrol the off-campus properties the school owns, but added that department leadership told officers to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity in the area following the fire.
“We’re just going to continue having a strong presence in the area,” Penn said.
Penn said only “a handful” of trespassing or vandalism incidents had been reported at the vacant houses the university owns prior in 2012, estimating the number at three.
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