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Monday, January 28, 2008

Owner sues city over store’s razing

By William Kaempffer
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— The owner of an already razed downtown jewelry store blames the city for wrecking her building and livelihood in the aftermath of the devastating Dec. 12 mid-block fire and has filed a lawsuit seeking damages.
Shang-Jin Hahn’s century-old building at 848 Chapel St., where she and her late husband ran Concord 9 for the better part of three decades, already was a pile of rubble when she filed the appeal to the demolition order by the city Jan. 17.
One aim of the legal action is to prevent the city from putting a lien on the property to recoup the cost of the demolition. Another is to seek monetary damages. She claims the city and it demolition contractor negligently damaged her building while tearing down the adjacent, fire-ravaged damaged Kresge department store.
Her building survived the fire itself relatively unscathed.
City Corporation Counsel John Ward Friday said “we absolutely deny” any negligence on the city’s part.
Meanwhile, the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee has scheduled a Feb. 6 public hearing about the fire, the city’s response to it and potential liability from firefighters’ exposure to asbestos.
How much substantive information will come out in open session is in question given the pending lawsuits and demolition appeals. Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield suspected any detailed explanation by city officials about the demolition will happen in executive session.
“My guess would be whenever we’ve got litigation against us, there’s going to be constraints on what the city can say in public,” he said.
After the three-alarm fire, Building Official Andrew Rizzo, who is a defendant in the lawsuit, declared the Kresge buildings an imminent danger and the city hired a contractor to take them down, despite opposition from the owner, Mid-Block Development.
At first, it appeared that the Spector Building, as Hahn’s property was known, could be saved, at least for the time being. The building had deteriorated over the years, but Rizzo concluded that it could stay up as long as the abutting building that helped support it was left standing. The plan was to leave that fire-damaged structure up and turn the project back over to Mid-Block to finish.
On Jan. 1, Hahn demanded the city not proceed with demolition unless it could ensure it would not compromise her building.
On Jan. 4, a massive I-beam gave way overnight, twisting the last portion of the Kresge building. That forced its demolition and left the city with no choice but to raze Spectors, Rizzo has said.
“It inevitably was going to collapse if you took away the remains of the Kresge building,” Ward said.
Further, the collapse of the I-beam had nothing to do with the city’s activities, he said, saying “it fell of its own accord.”
Hahn hired her own structural engineers, who told her that the demolition work already performed had damaged her property and “that alternative demolition measures should have been employed rather than the inappropriate ones that were used,” the lawsuit states.
In addition, she claimed, the city should have, but didn’t provide her with, any opportunity to “render the premises safe.”
It’s not the first time the city’s actions have been called into question. Paul Denz, of Mid-Block Development, has filed a similar appeal in Superior Court and has criticized the city’s haste in moving forward with demolition even after he contends the imminent danger had ended.
He also is seeking to prevent the city from putting a lien on the property for demolition costs, which Rizzo says now are in the neighborhood of $2 million.
The city is continuing to work with Hahn to find her a new location for her business.
“I really felt bad doing that to the Hahns,” Rizzo said of the demolition order. “They’ve been there for a long time. They’re nice people, but I had to do what I had to do.”

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