A building battle from ashes of fire

David Salinas was turning the corner onto Church Street when he saw the smoke billowing from his bar, the Brass Monkey Saloon.

Salinas received a call from his alarm company at 7:15 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 12, saying the bar’s emergency alarm had been activated. His roommate, who works at a business that has its offices across the street from the Brass Monkey, knocked on his door and told him he had heard there was a fire. Salinas arrived at the scene, the first of the bar’s four owners to do so, not knowing what to expect.

Spector building demolition, after Chapel Street fire, Jan. 9, 2008.
AileenAgricola
Spector building demolition, after Chapel Street fire, Jan. 9, 2008.

“I saw all this smoke, and I just thought, ‘Oh man, this is not a small fire,’ ” Salinas said.

The Brass Monkey — which Salinas said was “the busiest place in the city” when it was in business — had been open for three weeks before it went up in flames.

Salinas was about 15 feet away from the Brass Monkey when its roof began to collapse. He was a firsthand witness to the three-alarm fire that claimed roughly $10 million in damages and revenue loss on the block enclosed by Chapel, Church, Center and Orange streets, according to city-issued estimates.

Nothing could be salvaged from the Brass Monkey.

“Any business that you start takes on a personality,” Salinas said. “The camaraderie you build through your partnership, the hard work, and to see it all burn away — it’s devastating.”

The most destructive fire to ravage New Haven’s landscape in decades has now become a war of words pitting displaced local businesses, a property owner and city officials against each other over city’s demolition and reconstruction efforts.

Fueling the controversy is a disagreement over the necessity of the demolition of affected buildings and an unsettled exchange over whether the city will take over the destroyed property. In light of the controversy, the Board of Aldermen has agreed to take steps to foster public dialogue and awareness.

The building that housed the Brass Monkey, the old Kresges department store building, is at the center of it all.

Demolition and reconstruction

Most of the Kresges building was demolished by the city the day after the fire, when it was deemed structurally unsound by city officials, Andrew Rizzo, the executive director of the Livable City Initiative, which is overseeing the reconstruction effort. The site of the fire should be completely cleaned up and secured by the end of this week, he said.

Last Thursday and Friday, the Spectors building at 848 Chapel St., as well as the remaining parts of the Kresges building that stood supporting the Spectors building, was brought to the ground by a city-supervised demolition crew. City officials made the decision to demolish the Spectors building soon after a support beam fell to the ground on Jan. 3.

In addition to clean-up efforts, the city is now engaged in discussion with the Kresges building’s owner, Northside Developments’ Paul Denz, who acquired the property in early 2007.

City officials said they want ownership of the property to properly oversee its reconstruction. City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said New Haven wants to “ensure that there is continued vitality” in the area.

But Denz is refusing to sell it. He said he wants to redevelop the space himself.

Still, Mayorga said the city hopes to reach an agreement on property.

“Communication continues,” Mayorga said. “We have a number of options available to us, but we’re waiting for the outcome of the discussion.”

One such option, Mayorga said, is seizing the property through eminent domain. But Denz said he plans to resist any attempts by the city to acquire his property.

“This is America; these are my properties,” Denz said. “I’m interested in developing the property, and they’re talking about eminent domain. Why? This is a free market.”

In a matter of days, the buildings will be reduced to flat empty lots, and Denz said he sees no reason why he cannot retain ownership.

Salinas agrees, especially considering the prime location of the land.

“I’ve seen eminent domain happen for people who had homes near highways,” he said. “But to take a property because it’s a good parcel in the middle of the city away from someone — not only do I feel it’s not right, but as a property owner, I would be very upset if someone in the city of New Haven did that.”

Denz has also been publicly critical of the city’s handling of the demolition in the aftermath of the fire.

Property owners are typically responsible for overseeing and paying for the demolition of their buildings, but in the case of the Kresges demolition, city officials reserved the right to initiate the demolition because of the potential risk to public safety, Denz said.

But Denz said he would have been held to stricter standards in monitoring the work, had he commissioned the demolition. He said he believes the city-led demolition of the Kresges building may in part be responsible for the fallen beam in the Spectors building and the resulting need for the building to be demolished.

Mayorga said officials have not yet determined why the beam fell, or if the Kresges demolition had any effect at all. Rizzo said the connection of the beam to the support column was weak, but he could not pinpoint the reason why the beam fell.

From the ashes

Salinas owns a second company, an online marketing firm, and the other co-owners of the Brass Monkey are either business owners themselves or are otherwise employed. But others who lost their businesses to the fire are not as lucky.

Shang Ji-Hahn, the owner and former tenant of the Spectors building, had the building left to her by her late husband. Mayorga said that for now, Ji-Hahn has not found a space to relocate her jewelry store, Concord 9. The city is working to help Hahn identify a new space for her business, she said.

As the buildings were being flattened and the rubble was being carted out by the truckload last week, several questions about the fire and potential financial liabilities for the city surfaced at the Board of Aldermen meeting last Monday.

Ward 28 Alderman Moti Sandman, Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen and Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale wanted to make sure there was a public discussion about the fire and the issues surrounding it. Because the fire was in such an important downtown location and because of all the media attention, the aldermen wanted to give residents the chance to respond and also get some answers, Sturgis-Pascale said.

“What’s going to happen to that building? Is there something going to be rebuilt there? What are the options?” she asked. “There are also some questions about liability in the city regarding the fire and first responders.”

Exposure to asbestos may also turn into a problem for the city, Sturgis-Pascale said, citing the nature of the “old buildings.” The issues are will be addressed at a public forum to be held in the next month.

In the last few weeks, Salinas said he and his business partners have looked at a few prospective locations. They lost a lot of expected revenue from the holiday season, he said, but they are not rushing into any decisions.

“We’re taking our time and exploring the options,” Salinas said. “It could be a venture we want to get into moving forward.”

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