City halts work on collapsed building|[7/6/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 6, 2006

Stabilization of a partially collapsed downtown building was halted by city officials Wednesday, less than a week after the owners hired a private contractor for the work.

City Inspector Victor Gray-Lewis said William Greenwood of Bentonia-based Antique Brick and Glass Co. of Mississippi Inc., had not submitted a required engineer’s report before beginning this week to pick up bricks of the old Thomas Furniture building on Clay Street by hand.

&#8220He was there this morning and they were working and we stopped them,” Gray-Lewis said Wednesday.

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The city will also move forward with plans to hire its own contractor for the job, he said. Bids for the work, based on a plan put together in May by Texas engineer Patrick Sparks, are expected to be received at the regular meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Monday.

&#8220The buildings are just as they were when they fell back in January,” Gray-Lewis said. &#8220The city’s going to continue on track with their plan because we need to move forward.”

Meanwhile, one of the building’s owners, Mary Reuther, said she and her husband, Preston Reuther, were contemplating a challenge to the city’s authority over work.

&#8220What we’re looking at right now is to get an attorney to find out if the (Board of Mayor and Aldermen) has jurisdiction over the rights of the building’s owner,” she said. &#8220Every time we have tried to do something, they have put obstacles against us.”

The couple has unsuccessfully requested permission to demolish what remains of the collapsed property at 711 and 713 Clay St. and still-standing sections at 707-709 Clay, said Reuther, and have offered to sell the complex to the city.

&#8220But until then, you have to deal with the landowners,” she said.

The collapse has kept the junction of Clay and Washingon streets closed to traffic for six months.

Before last week, the Reuthers had vowed not to rebuild, accused officials of being anti-small business, auctioned off what remained of the antiques intended for a shop in the building and put up for sale five of the 14 properties they had bought since moving from New Orleans five years ago.

That was before Greenwood showed up at their door, however, having heard about the property and resorted to looking up city tax rolls to find the building’s owners. He had tried for three months without success to contact the Reuthers through the city, he said, and had spoken to Gray-Lewis personally &#8220at least three times.”

After learning of Greenwood’s hiring last week, Gray-Lewis said he had never heard of the contractor or Antique Brick and Wood Co.

Greenwood said his crew would take the structure apart by hand, with a crowbar, and not use any heavy equipment that could lead to further collapse and damage to surrounding buildings.

&#8220The only thing holding that building up is a prayer,” he said.

The 140-year-old, multistory building toppled during cleaning on Jan. 25. Twenty-five workers inside escaped without injury.

The fall knocked a hole in the west wall of the adjacent Adolph Rose Antiques building, which was subsequently repaired by Riverside Construction with the use of heavy machinery.

Based on a report by structural engineer John Madison and a letter from Gray-Lewis which said &#8220continued collapse may be imminent,” as well as a &#8220cost-prohibitive” $2.75 million renovation estimate, the Reuthers asked in February to have the buildings demolished. That request was rejected by the city’s architectural review board and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, who did approve stabilization plans drawn up by the Reuthers’ contractor, Freddie Parson, and set a March 11 deadline for work to begin.

Parson, however, was subsequently fired for failing to begin work, which he said he was unable to do because he had only received mandatory insurance the day before his termination.

Two other local contractors Reuther hired the first week of March said they were also unable to get the necessary insurance to begin work or submit an engineer’s plan before the expiration of the city’s deadline.

In April, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved $17,500 to hire Sparks to draw a blueprint for stabilizing the property.

&#8220We’re picking up where we left off with the order the city made in March,” Gray-Lewis said. &#8220They need to come into compliance with the order and once they do that we can move forward. They will have to come up with their own plan.”