Committee considers stricter enforcement of commercial building codes

The Pine Bluff City Council Public Health and Welfare Committee met with city officials Thursday to consider how best to ensure city building codes are followed and enforced, especially in light of last week’s partial building collapse downtown.

Made up of chairman Ward 1 Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Ward 1 Alderman Thelma Walker and Ward 3 Alderman Glen Brown, the committee met with Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, Assistant to the Mayor Evelyn Horton, city technical inspector Jamin Ross, city Fire Marshall Fred Tisdale, Southeast Arkansas Regional Planning Commission Director Larry Reynolds and Zoning Administrator Lakishia Hill.

A three-story historical structure owned by Garland Trice located at 620 S. Main St. suffered a partial collapse July 25 resulting in the ongoing closure of Main Street between Sixth and Eighth avenues.

Hollingsworth said that a professional assessment of building integrity must be part of any new strategy for making downtown buildings safe.

“I would like to bring in a structural engineer who would be on call in an as-needed basis,” Hollingsworth said. “Any assessment would be at the landowner’s expense. We have to do something.”

Hollingsworth said that recent downtown commercial building collapses are a wake-up call for the city.

Walker suggested providing property owners with a list of structural engineers who would agree to provide building assessments under a specified cost structure.

Brown said that he has long been concerned about the declining state of downtown buildings.

“I’m going to step on some toes but I really don’t care,” Brown said. “These buildings have just been sitting there and have been slowly deteriorating. The owners need to structurally assess their buildings and tear them down if they are not safe.”

Ross outlined the city inspection and zoning department’s proposed strategy for addressing the issue of deteriorating downtown commercial buildings.

“The first step is to identify all vacant commercial structures, assess their current condition and identify all occupied commercial structures,” Ross said.

Ross said that making contact with the building owners will be the next step and that this will come in the form of a letter that explains the city’s public health, safety and welfare concerns related to older commercial buildings.

“We sent out 70 letters July 14 advising building owners of their responsibility to have an asbestos study performed and to inform the city of the study results,” Ross said. “If a building in need of demolition needs asbestos abatement performed, you are looking at a demolition that would cost $20,000 with no asbestos present to a cost of $120,000 if asbestos is present in the structure.”

Ross said that a second letter is being prepared that will lay out building owner responsibilities regarding minimum requirements for property maintenance.

Ross said that city code currently requires adherence to the minimum requirements of the International Property Maintenance Code.

A yearly inspection plan would be put in place by the inspection department in cooperation with Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services, Ross said.

“We would then issue legal notices to building owners found to be in violation that either require repair or, if found to be structurally unsound, require demolition,” Ross said.

Ross said that legal penalties, including potential fines and lawsuits, are under consideration as part of the city’s commercial building strategy.

A commercial building at 401 S. Main St. suffered a wall collapse Feb. 21 that forced the city to immediately demolish the rest of the structure to ensure public safety. Building owner Joe Meador agreed to remit $29,000 to A1 Demolition no later than Aug. 15 to remove the rubble. The lengthy delay in removing the debris was caused by the need to have an asbestos study performed at the site.

620 S. Main St. update

Hollingsworth said Thursday evening that Trice was in the process of submitting to her a certified report on the structural integrity of the 620 S. Main St. building produced by a structural engineer hired by Trice.

“We will assess the report and validate the engineer’s credentials and then proceed from there,” Hollingsworth said.