Emergency appropriation authorized

Bricks are missing from the tops of columns on the Arnold Street side of the Block Building and the danger of additional bricks falling has prompted city officials to accelerate efforts to demolish the building. (Photo by Carl E. Hartdegen)

WESTFIELD – The City Council put off the business of a special meeting last night to consider a late emergency communication from the mayor and ultimately voted, 10-2, to appropriate $125,000 from the stabilization fund to deal with “a safety hazard in our downtown area.”
City Advancement Officer Jeffrey R. Daley addressed the council, with building inspector Jonathan Flagg at his side, and reported that on Wednesday morning Flagg was advised by a police detail officer that bricks had fallen from the building at 94 Elm St., known as the Block Building.
The discussion became argumentative at times, with some councilors questioning the rush to get this done.
Daley said that Flagg immediately responded to inspect the city-owned building and Daley, reading from Flagg’s report to the mayor, said “I have determined that this structure is a danger to life and limb and is in danger of immediate collapse.”
Flagg’s report also revealed that the adjacent building at 80 Elm St., which is owned by Hampden Bank, is “being looked at for its structural integrity as well.”
Daley advised the councilors that the law requires that the city take immediate action to safeguard the public and asked for the appropriation in order to allow whatever immediate corrective actions is necessary, including the demolition of the buildings.
Daley explained that, under Massachusetts law, the private owners of the second building are required to submit a plan for remediation by noon on the day after they are advised of the problem and, if they fail to do so, the city has a legal obligation to secure that building also.
Both buildings have long been slated for removal as part of the planned inter-modal transit project and the associated development effort for the property centered on the vacant lot where a J.J. Newberry’s store burned more than 20 years ago.
Daley said that in response to the risk of additional bricks falling the property was fenced off from the front of the 80 Elm St. building around the corner with Arnold Street to the rear of the Block Building “to secure the sidewalks” but warned that the area is not completely secure.
Daley said “If something gives way on either of the buildings it’s going to impact the street and the full sidewalk” but said that he is “cautiously optimistic that we can move forward.”
Daley and Flagg consulted with a local contractor and got an estimate on what it would cast “to take down both buildings is if it is deemed necessary and also to mitigate some contamination that could be in the private property.”
The demolition costs, Daley said, will not exceed $100,000 and $25,000 has been budgeted to pay for any needed environmental remediation in the private building.
Daley said “The Block Building has a clean bill of health” but the condition of the other building, which the city has been in negotiations to purchase for the Elm Street redevelopment project, is unknown so money was budgeted to deal with any environmental concerns there if the city has to take action.
Daley stressed that the contractor is fully aware of the $125,000 limit and has committed to abide by it.
Daley said that the city may not need to spend the entire appropriation and will recoup some of the expense.
He said that he and Flagg will meet with representatives of the owners on Friday to learn their intentions and said that, if they have a plan to deal with problem the city will not need the funds budgeted for that building but stressed that, if the bank does not deal with the safety problem the building represents, the city is obligated by law to take immediate action.
If the city has to take action on the privately owned building, the city will be able to place a lien on the building to recoup the costs.
In addition, a HUD appropriation to pay for the eventual demolition of the Block Building is in hand. Although that money cannot be immediately accessed he said that the city will get reimbursed, “up to $23,800 I think the number was, don’t quote me on that, but it’s less than $25,000” but that money will take eight weeks and the city can’t wait.
“By law we have to act. I can’t wait two weeks, I can’t wait one week, I can’t wait eight weeks for that money to come in from HUD,” Daley said.
Councilor James Adams said that he wanted to make sure that the city does not put money into a building which will then be torn down.
Councilor Mary O’Connell asked how long the city has owned the Block Building, what the inspection schedule had been, why the situation suddenly became an emergency and if the cost was elevated because of the emergency response.
Daley said that the contractor was working with the city, understands the limit and said no surcharge has been added because of the need to do the work immediately. He said that the contractor was willing to start work on Sunday but the city cannot get the paperwork done that soon.
Daley said that it is difficult to inspect bricks “forty feet in the air to make sure every brick is safe” but  said that reasonable inspections have been made.
Flagg said that he inspects the building every two months but the problem did not become apparent until the bricks started falling from the building.
“Now the bricks are falling off the building, it’s as simple as that. They weren’t before, now they are,” Flagg said.
Councilor David Flaherty objected that the city’s actions may put unreasonable pressure on the owner of the 80 Elm St., building to demolish it.
The exchange between Daley, O’Connell and Flaherty became heated during discussions and continued between Daley and O’Connell during a two-minute recess later in the meeting.
Daley pointed out that the city is following the law and Flaherty said “The law isn’t that he has to demolish it, it’s just that he has to come back with a plan and part of the plan. In many cases in big cities the plan is just to put a big fence around it and secure it.”
Daley said that the owner still has choices but said “we have to have the funds in place to mitigate the public safety hazard.”
He said that the building may not have to be demolished but it has to be secured. “It’s not secure today and it could let go today, tomorrow or Sunday.” But, he said, the decision has not been made and the bank still can make it until noon Friday when the law requires them to have a plan to secure the hazardous building.
“We are not bullying the private property owner,” said Daley, in response to Flaherty.
“We do not bully people,” added Daley this morning.  ” We work cooperatively with everyone and want a good outcome within the law.”
The question was called and, when the councilors voted to provide the requested funds, the motion passed 10-2 with councilors Flaherty and O’Connell voting against the motion.
“Certain councilors need to put politics aside and vote in the best interest of the people,”  said Mayor Daniel M. Knapik this morning.   “Thankfully, the rest of the council did the right thing.”
Further action will be determined when Daley and Flagg meet with the bank representatives today.

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