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Old City Hall: City has little recourse to force clean-up, city manager tells council

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Nov. 30, 2010 at 4:33 pm | 14 Comments »
November 30, 2010 5:05 pm

City regulators have little or no legal authority to force the owners of Old City Hall to clean up the historic building after a ruptured water pipe flooded parts of it last week, City Manager Eric Anderson told city council members Tuesday.

During an update on Old City Hall’s situation at the council’s study session, Anderson assured council members the city is doing all it can to ensure the privately-owned building doesn’t go the way of another downtown landmark: the Luzon Building.

A tenant watches watches water flowing from a broken pipe inside Old City Hall last week.

“We want to make sure we are doing everything we can do to avoid losing the building,” Anderson said.

But Anderson added: “We can’t just go into a (private) building and clean it up without an immediate public danger.”

Unlike the 118-year-old Luzon, which the city razed last year after 30 years of neglect and private restoration efforts failed, Old City Hall does not represent a public safety hazard, Anderson said.

“It’s not in imminent danger of collapse,” he said.

On a hypothetical scale of 1 to 10, with 10 posing an immediate threat to public safety, Anderson described the 122-year-old Old City Hall building as closer to a 1.

But at least one council member disagreed with Anderson’s assessment.

“I’d put it closer to a 5,” said Councilman David Boe, an architect by trade, “just because of the insidious nature of water in a wood-framed structure.”

Boe added “there is significant concern” with allowing water to stand over time in Old City Hall, a situation he said could create structural, mold or other problems and potentially limit interests from outside parties that may want to take on the project.

“You’ve got to dry that building out,” Boe said. “…What concerns me with a wood-framed structure in the interior – and we’re heading into the wet months – (is) there needs to be a plan going forward, and not just wait for the insurance claim.”

Since sprinkler pipes froze and burst last Wednesday, flooding 30,000 gallons of water inside the building, little clean up has occurred.

On Monday, George Webb, general manager of the building’s Seattle-based ownership group, told The News Tribune he is still assessing damages to figure out what to do next.

With its iconic brick tower and Italian Renaissance architecture, Old City Hall is one of the city’s most recognizable structures. Once the headquarters of city operations, the building has been in private ownership for decades.

It housed a full complement of commercial tenants until 2005, when Webb’s group bought the building and forced its tenants to vacate with ideas to convert offices to condos.

Since then, with the collapse of the condo market, the building has fallen into disrepair and financial distress. Webb said earlier this week he’s now negotiating with Union Bank to address a threatened foreclosure, while still trying to lease out commercial space.

Neither Webb nor any other representative of the building’s ownership group attended Tuesday’s study session. Webb did not immediately return a call seeking comment later Tuesday.

But Anderson told council members that since the building’s flooding, city officials have been in contact with the owners. In a memo to the council earlier Tuesday, Anderson informed them a property manager told city staff on Monday he was getting the building’s electrical system certified and repairing its sprinkler system. The building’s two tenants are also being relocated, the property manager said.

“We’re encouraging the property owner to take action,” Anderson added.

But when asked by Mayor Marilyn Strickland whether the owners have a plan to clean up the building, Anderson said he didn’t know. Strickland asked him to find out.

Even if the structure isn’t posing an immediate public danger, Boe wondered whether city officials could take action given the building’s state of neglect. With the fire alarm system now down, Boe noted, that poses a potential fire hazard.

“There are all the tell-tale signs of a building in distress,” Boe added. “Can’t we step in and say,`You fix it or we will fix it for you?’”

That’s unlikely said Anderson and City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli, who noted city code specifically details what constitutes nuisance or danger properties.

“If it’s a nuisance or a violation of code, we can do that,” Anderson said. “But we can’t use that to get into a building (to clean it up).”

Because the building’s tenants have since relocated, Anderson added, the city’s potential regulatory authority is further weakened.

“We thought we had (a hammer), but with the tenants being relocated (we don’t),” he said.

“So we can’t go in and clean up the property and send them the bill,” Strickland asked.

“I wish we could,” Anderson said.

Also Tuesday, Ruben McKnight, the city’s historical preservation officer, told the council he continues to work on a new proactive inspection program for historic landmarks to head off potential problems. That effort was launched earlier this year in the aftermath of the Luzon’s demolition.

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