Post-fire, city seeks to work with proprietors

Although the buildings have been demolished and the flames long extinguished, in some respects the downtown rebuilding effort following last month’s three-alarm fire southeast of the Green is raging as hotly and contentiously as the conflagration itself.

Livable City Initiative Director Andrew Rizzo, who is overseeing the demolition and reconstruction of the area affected by the Dec. 12 fire, is embroiled in heated discussions with the two owners of the affected properties, one of whom has filed charges against the city for damage to his property. City officials said they think the suit is baseless, but they are continuing negotiations with the two owners in order to ensure “continued vitality” in the area.

Construction workers clear debris from the Dec. 12 Chapel Street fire. Plans for the area's restoration have been enmeshed in argument.
Daniel Carvalho
Construction workers clear debris from the Dec. 12 Chapel Street fire. Plans for the area's restoration have been enmeshed in argument.

Last Friday, the city gave back the properties belonging to Paul Denz of Northside Development after temporarily assuming control of the buildings for demolition purposes in December. While one of his properties, the Kresge building, was completely demolished by the city, his property on 91 Church St. remains standing, although it is now missing a back wall.

City officials are granting Denz the property only on the condition that he demolish or restore it to safety, and Denz hopes to maintain ownership and reconstruct the missing part of the building.

In a fax sent to Denz and dated Jan. 23, Rizzo wrote he will release the downtown properties of 29 Center St. and 824-846 Chapel St. back to Denz. But Rizzo deemed the building that Denz owns at 91 Church unsafe, and Rizzo gave Denz 30 days to demolish or restore the building before the city initiates the demolition and forces Denz to pick up the tab.

Denz said he had been to 91 Church St. with an architect, an engineer and a building contractor Monday. Although the building has its “back ripped off,” Denz said he is optimistic he can preserve the building in its present form.

“We are putting together a plan to attempt to save [the building],” Denz said in an e-mail.

Rizzo could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Jose Romero, the demolition officer for the Livable City Initiative, did not return requests for comment left on his voice mail Tuesday.

Just over two weeks ago, city officials said they had plans to acquire the property and develop it themselves. City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga told the News earlier this month that the city had a number of options available — ranging from a simple purchase to claiming the property through eminent domain — in order to “ensure that there is continued vitality” in the area.

Mayorga said Tuesday that city officials are still talking with Denz about “the future of the property.”

Meanwhile, Shang-Jin Hahn — who formerly owned and operated the Concord 9 jewelry store in the Spectors building on Chapel Street — is suing New Haven for negligence, although city officials said they doubt the lawsuit will hold up in court.

Hahn is suing the city and Rizzo for damaging the Spectors building during last month’s demolition of the adjacent Kresge building, which is owned by Denz, thus necessitating the demolition of the Spectors building. The city currently has a lien — a legal hold on a property to compensate for an unpaid debt — on the property and it is not yet clear who will pay for the demolition.

The lawsuit states that Hahn is suing for monetary damages “including, but not limited to damage to and loss and destruction to her building; loss of use of her building; lost income to her business; reduction in property value; possible lien for demolition costs and expenses.”

John Ward, chief legal counsel for the city, said he thinks Hahn’s lawsuit is unlikely to succeed.

“Assuming that the facts as we’ve seen them are the facts, then there is no merit,” Ward said. “When people file lawsuits, they just see the facts in a different light.”

The Spectors building had to come down when it came down because it was structurally unsound, Ward explained, and outside engineers made that clear.

Hahn’s lawyer, Karen Karpie, did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

In early January, Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale, Ward 28 Alderman Moti Sandman, Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar and Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen called for a public forum to address the various issues surrounding the December fire. On Tuesday, Sturgis-Pascale said she had not seen mention of the forum on any aldermanic committee calendars or heard it discussed since the idea was announced.

Al Lucas, the director of legislative services for the Board of Aldermen, said although an article in the New Haven Register on Monday had published the date for the forum as 6 p.m. on Feb. 6, the date and time have not yet been officially determined.

The forum will occur sometime in February, Lucas said.

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