Several downtown buildings that have caused the partial closure of South Ohio Avenue may be demolished in 90 days if its owner does not make immediate repairs.
An unanimous decision made by the Board of Appeals on Tuesday ruled owner Gary Huddleston has three months to start work on the buildings at 202, 204 and 206 S. Ohio Ave., which were damaged when a fire gutted the buildings at 208 and 210 S. Ohio Ave., or they would be demolished by the city.
According to testimony, an early morning fire broke out Dec. 14, 2012, at 208 and 210. After the fire was put out, city officials, including Chief Building Inspector Andy Burt, Mayor Elaine Horn, City Administrator Gary Edwards and Fire Chief Mike Ditzfeld, made the decision that afternoon the buildings were not structurally stable and should be torn down immediately to prevent further collapse or injury to the public. Demolition crews with W & M Welding began to work on the structure and it was partially torn down, though a common “wing wall” was left standing.
Huddleston has long argued the city’s decision to immediately demolish the buildings — one of which shares a common wall with 206 — caused his building damage and that the city should pay for repairs.
According to Burt, the decision to tear down 208 and 210 was made because its roofs had collapsed in the fire, leading to increased weight on the floors below. In addition, the city’s 911 system was located next to the buildings and officials were worried it may collapse onto the wires, cutting off 911 access city-wide.
Huddleston’s attorney Virgil Rodgers asked Burt if structural engineers were spoken to before the demolition; Burt testified they were not.
“Was there any reason why you couldn’t bring in engineers before tearing down the building?” he asked.
“We saw the roofs collapse and cracks appearing on the walls (of 208 and 210),” Burt said. “These were non-supported load-bearing walls and I don’t think an engineer could have given us any more insight that day.”
Rodgers also pressed Burt about a lintel beam that connected the building, noting the insurance engineers suggested it be cut down, not demolished.
“Those were their remarks but my feeling was it wasn’t safe to send someone into the building to cut the beam,” Burt said.
Structural engineer Clark Kelly, with Norton & Schmidt Consulting Engineers, testified about two site visits he conducted on the property after the fire. During his second visit in February, Kelly was able to look at 206’s south wall — the common wall that was shared with 208 — and determine it needed extensive repairs.
“It was our opinion that repairs were needed and very quickly,” Kelly said. “We were concerned about repairs especially to the southwest corner, there was major mortar joint disintegration due to weathering. Bricks were also starting to fall into themselves and there was separation from the wall and floor joists.”
Rodgers asked if the rear portion of the wing wall had been partially demolished instead of left standing, it would have helped reserve the common wall.
“To some extent yes,” Kelly said.
Testimony was also heard that Huddleston offered to sell to the city in May, at a cost of $196,000, for the building and economic losses. The city conducted its own appraisal soon after and found the buildings were worth about $55,000 before the fire but after the fire the buildings were worth negative $40,000.
“The vacant ground itself is worth about $20,000 but since you would have to demolish the buildings and spend up to $60,000 on excavation, that’s how we come up with a negative number,” explained J.D. Moran, who conducted the appraisal.
Burt testified that repairs to the wall would cost between $100,000 and $150,000 and because those exceeded the building’s actual worth, the city made the recommendation to starting the dangerous building process, leading to the Board of Appeals meeting.
Rodgers suggested the idea of demolishing 206, but leaving 204 and 202 alone, but Burt noted it would likely cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to repair walls for that idea to work and “if you tore down 206 I’m not sure what you’d find.”
After all testimony was heard, Board of Appeals member Shirley Neff said the situation was “just horrible.”
“I think it’s ridiculous this has gone on this long,” she said. “It’s your building, you should have taken care of everything. I have to take care of my house.”
When asked if he had building insurance, Huddleston told the board he did not.
“I think you’d be surprised how many downtown owners don’t have insurance,” he said.
After the ruling, Huddleston told the Democrat he would continue to move forward with litigation in state court on the matter.