2 judges hold fate of Battlefield mall

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 17, 2003

The Battlefield Village mall (File photoThe Vicksburg Post)

[4/17/03]The fate of the empty Battlefield Village mall building is in the hands of two Warren County judges following oral arguments Wednesday and last week.

Warren County Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick will decide if the City of Vicksburg can order the North Frontage Road property demolished. Warren County Court Judge Johnny Price will decide if the property owners will be fined for violations of the city’s fire codes.

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Both cases were appealed to the separate courts by J&V Properties, the owners of the site described as an “eyesore” along Vicksburg’s Interstate 20 corridor.

Inspectors with the Vicksburg Fire Department testified Wednesday that the sprinkler system in the 127,000-square-foot main mall building has been turned off since 2001 when the water to the site was shut off because of leaks. Officials with the fire department said that without the sprinkler system, the building is a tinderbox and a hazard to the community and firefighters.

“A vacant building is more of a hazard than an occupied one because you don’t know what’s going on in there from day to day,” said Leslie Decareuax, inspector and fire investigator for the VFD.

During a previous hearing in Vicksburg Community Court in December, Judge Mack Varner had fined the owners $5,000 for five counts of violating the city’s fire codes and ordered the owner to post 24-hour a day fire-watch on the property or face a $200-a-day fine.

Local Attorney Wren Way, representing J&V, argued that a sprinkler system may not be required under the law for the building vacant since 1996 and that the fire/smoke alarm system the owners offered to install would have been better than a manned watch.

“What if he’s asleep?” Way asked. “It’s a manned thing, and it’s subject to the frailties of man.”

Price asked for written briefs from both sides.

In the case in Warren County Circuit Court last Friday, attorneys for J&V argued that the city’s order to demolish the building was arbitrary and capricious. In September, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen had upheld a previous order to repair the 42-year-old building or tear it down.

Attorneys for J&V appealed that decision while owners said they were close to striking a deal to sell. Since then, one outparcel has been sold and renovated by a retailer and another torn down.

Patrick took the arguments under advisement.

The North Frontage Road property, visible from Interstate 20, has been a target of two city administrations since the last major tenants, the Corps of Engineers, moved out six years ago. In November 2001, the city building inspection department ordered the structure torn down, but a 180-day stay was issued at the request of the owners.

Last summer, when that stay expired, the owners asked for more time. That request was denied and appealed to the city board, which upheld the demolition order.

The property has been deemed “unsafe or unfit for human occupancy” by the city’s building inspection department which cited problems associated with the structure, including a lack of water to the building’s fire sprinkler system, damage to the roof and vegetation on the outside.

Battlefield was among the first and one of the largest malls in Mississippi when built. Its major stores such as McRae’s, Sears, Kroger and Walgreen’s were joined by smaller specialty shops and a restaurant. It emptied quickly after Pemberton Square mall opened in 1985.

The building was then converted into space for federal employees moved from the condemned Walnut Towers building near City Hall. It has been mostly vacant since the Vicksburg District moved to new offices on East Clay Street in 1996.

For some of the time since, the owners were in negotiations with the General Services Administration over lease provisions requiring the federal government to pay to return the structure to a configuration for retail use.