Owner, city to decide fallen building’s fate|[2/16/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 16, 2006

The owner of the downtown building that collapsed last month will meet with city inspectors Tuesday to propose a plan for securing the damaged property, city officials said Wednesday.

The city then could move to take over work on the property, which has closed Clay Street between Walnut and Washington streets since the old Thomas Furniture building crumbled during renovations on Jan. 25, said Mayor Laurence Leyens.

&#8220We’ve got to get that main thoroughfare open and create a safe environment,” said Leyens. &#8220The owner doesn’t appear to be moving forward anymore.”

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Meanwhile Wednesday, the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Vicksburg Main Street Program and the Vicksburg-Warren Community Alliance Inc., were ordered by the city to move out of one of the buildings on the affected block after the building inspector cited structural problems.

The three offices occupy the building on the northeast corner of Clay and Washington streets, just west of the damaged structures and east of the Adolph Rose building.

The evacuation order by Victor Grey-Lewis came after a demolition plan submitted by engineer John Madison, employed by Preston Reuther, owner of the 140-year-old building, was denied by the city’s Architectural Review Board. Madison’s plan recommended that two still-standing, abandoned structures adjacent to the old Thomas Furniture Building, both also owned by Reuther and one of which shared a facade and a wall with the collapsed building be razed because they are unstable and renovation &#8220could be cost-prohibitive.”

The board’s denial came in spite of the recommendation by Madison and a letter to Reuther written by Gray-Lewis dated Friday, which requested the assessment of a structural engineer because &#8220the structure at 709 Clay Street and 707 Clay Street that remains standing appears to be in such a precarious state that continued collapse may be imminent.”

&#8220Those buildings are really integral to the whole area down there and just to demolish them would also create sort of a domino effect. And where would you stop?” asked Toni Lanford, chairman of the Architectural Review Board. &#8220The job of the Architectural Review Board is not to decide how much cost is involved. It’s to save buildings.”

The architectural board approved the demolition of the remainder of the collapsed properties at 711 and 713 Clay, which poses a threat to ongoing work at the Adolph Rose building just to the east, Lanford said. The antique store sustained a massive hole in its west wall during its neighbor’s fall.

&#8220I feel like my building (will be) ready other than the fact they have to keep those other buildings from falling before we can move back in,” said Malcolm Allred, who owns the Adolph Rose building and lived in a third floor apartment. He hopes to be back in the building by the end of next month, he said.

The buildings owned by Reuther, who bought them from former owner John Haik in October of last year, were being renovated to become an antique shopping mall when the collapse occurred. Twenty-three workers inside escaped unharmed.

In his report, Madison wrote, &#8220It is very hard, if not impossible to ascertain the mode(s) of failure that caused the old Thomas Building to collapse,” and suggested factors, from design flaws to remodeling efforts to age, could have played a role.

Gray-Lewis said he found numerous structural problems in the remaining buildings owned by Reuther and in the building housing the VCVB, Main Street and Alliance during an informal walk-through Wednesday, including plants growing into the mortar between bricks and the complete disintegration of mortar in other places.

&#8220Based on what (Madison) submitted in his report we had to empty the buildings because they’re not safe,” said Gray-Lewis. &#8220The mortar’s shot,” Grey-Lewis told inspector Wayne Scott as he ran his finger between bricks in a back wall of the Main Street building overlooking a parking lot. &#8220It’s just powder.”

The VCVB will move operations to its Clay Street location near Interstate 20, said interim executive director Clara Ross Stamps. Main Street’s two employees will find room in City Hall, said executive director Rosalie Theobald, and Leyens said this morning the Alliance has not found a new home.

Because that building is compromised, Lewis said, plans for its future will also be among discussions of Reuther’s property in the Tuesday planning meeting.

If the plan submitted by Reuther or his engineers is rejected by city officials, the board of aldermen may place a lien on the property under the city’s slum clearance ordinance, based on state law, said city attorney Nancy Thomas.

&#8220Property has to be uninhabitable and the building official has to make findings that it presents a threat to public welfare” before the city can take over, Thomas said.

As the lien holder, the city could pass on to Reuther through taxes costs for any work on the property, Leyens said. With Leyens citing potential liabilities, the city has resisted working on the buildings since the collapse.

&#8220We’re going to have to wait until February 21,” Leyens said. &#8220Everybody’s waiting for a plan of work.”

Reuther could not be reached by phone Wednesday evening or this morning.