City dismisses developer’s claim of negligence in Ninth Square fire

A handful of New Haven officials gathered at the New Haven Fire Station earlier this week in an attempt to debunk claims from a real-estate developer that the city committed negligence when it allowed the Brass Monkey — a nightclub that burned down in last December’s Ninth Square fire — to open while in violation of safety codes.

The allegations by Mid Block Development — which also asserted that the city contracted the building’s post-fire demolition to a company that lacked the proper license — mark the latest development in a dispute that has continued, unresolved, since last year. On Wednesday, New Haven Fire Department Chief Michael Grant, Fire Marshall Joseph Cappucci, Corporation Counselor John Ward and Building Inspector Andrew Rizzo dismissed those allegations as “totally outrageous, totally unfair and totally insulting.”

According to allegations filed June 23 in New Haven Superior Court by attorneys representing Paul Denz, of Mid Block, the fire department was fully aware that the club’s sprinkler system was flawed but let the Brass Monkey open despite the known hazard.

But the officials at Wednesday’s press conference said the city had in fact sent an inspector, who had reported the flawed system and advised the withholding of the health certificate the club needed to open until the sprinkler heads were made to be flush with the ceiling. At that time, the sprinklers hung several feet below the ceiling, as the owners of the Brass Monkey had had the ceiling raised after buying it from the previous owner.

The Brass Monkey eventually received the certificate, however, after promising to adjust the sprinkler heads 90 days before opening, according to the officials.

“The inspector actually did his job,” Grant said.

The sprinkler system in question, Grant said, was not in violation of the fire code at all. Buildings with occupant loads of greater than 300 are required to be protected by approved and supervised automatic sprinkler systems, he said, but those codes did not apply to the Brass Monkey, which had occupancy rights for only 267.

While Grant confirmed Mid Block’s report that the sprinkler heads were indeed hanging three feet below the Brass Monkey’s ceiling, he also said that because the fire originated between the ceiling and roof of the club, the sprinklers would not have activated anyway. Had the fire been on the ground floor, Grant said, the fully functional sprinklers would have put it out.

But although they are not legally required, Grant said his department advises businesses to install sprinklers.

“We don’t discourage people from having sprinkler systems,” Grant said. “They save lives.”

The recently amended appeal of the demolition order, which now includes the allegations against the city, is meant to prevent the city from regaining the hefty cost of the demolition. Already, the city has placed a $1.85 million lien on the demolished property by the city.

At the press conference, Rizzo also sought to bat down an accusation from Mid Block that although demolishing a building like the Brass Monkey requires a Class A permit, the city gave the job to a contractor with an insufficient Class B permit. Class B permit holders are licensed to handle demolitions of buildings under 25 feet, according to Rizzo, which made the city-hired contractor eligible to demolish the one-story Brass Monkey, the height of which was under that limit.

For the demolition of neighboring buildings above 25 feet, the city subcontracted the job to Manafort Brothers, which has a Class A permit, Rizzo said.

The three-alarm fire, which was the largest the downtown area has seen in decades, destroyed a large part of what had formerly been the Grant and Kresge department-store buildings.

Among the other businesses directly affected by the fire were Footlocker, Madrags, Expressions, Chinatown, New Haven Furniture and Linen and the New Haven Variety Store.

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