PORTLAND — The owner of a multi-story building in the Old Port that was heavily damaged by a three-alarm fire early Thursday had been cited for fire safety violations in the building dating back to April. City officials say the violations were never addressed.
Inspections were done at 420 Fore St. and the adjacent building at 416 Fore St. on April 2 and again on May 6. Inspectors cited a total of 11 code violations, including missing smoke detectors, open wiring and an inadequate number of ways to get out of the building. The inspections were prompted by a business permit application.
The buildings’ owner, Joseph Soley, and property manager, P.J. Roberts, were given 32 days from May 6 to comply with the code and failed to do so, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.
City officials had been trying to contact Soley or a property manager for months before the fire broke out before dawn Thursday, Clegg said.
Soley did not return calls for comment Thursday.
Soley, a major commercial real estate owner in Portland, has a long history of legal disputes with the city over the maintenance of his properties. He also has been successfully sued by tenants who said he failed to address fire and safety concerns.
The fire, and related smoke and water damage, displaced residents and businesses in an entire block of the Old Port.
Firefighters and cleanup companies spent much of Thursday mopping up from the fire, which was first reported about 1:30 a.m. in the basement of the Dancing Elephant II, an Indian restaurant that fronts Wharf Street. The acrid smell of smoke lingered, and charred debris was piled outside as pedestrians stopped to survey the damage.
The fire was difficult to fight because the building is more than 100 years old and has many tight spaces, Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said Thursday. The building does not have sprinklers.
Apartments on the second and third floors where eight people live were evacuated. No one was injured.
The local American Red Cross chapter was available to assist the displaced tenants.
The fire’s cause had not been determined by Thursday night and was still under investigation. It was not considered suspicious, Clegg said.
It could be several days, or even weeks, before the tenants and businesses can return to the building.
The fire was largely contained to the Indian restaurant, but several adjacent businesses and apartments between Fore and Wharf streets suffered smoke and water damage, in some cases significantly.
The fire department posted as uninhabitable the entire block of Fore Street between Dana Street and an alley several doors away. It will be unoccupied until it is deemed safe by an engineer, Clegg said.
Joe Kelley, who owns Joe’s New York Pizza at 420 Fore St., said his business will have to be emptied, cleaned and repainted. All of his inventory was lost.
More than that, his employees will not get paychecks for the foreseeable future.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get back open as soon as possible,” Kelley said, while acknowledging that some things might be out of his control.
Tracy Davis and Emily Mattei of Urban Dwellings, an interior architectural design company on the second floor of 422 Fore St., above the Old Port Candy Co., said their business will be displaced but they don’t know how long.
Davis and Mattei removed their computers and other files on Thursday and said they will work elsewhere until they are cleared to return.
Chris Gould and his wife, Paige, recently bought the building at 414 Fore St., which is adjacent to Dana Street and connected to the building that burned. The Goulds plan to turn the first two floors into a bar and restaurant.
Chris Gould said in an email Thursday that his building suffered only smoke damage and he did not expect the damage to delay his plans significantly.
Some businesses at 424 Fore St., including CS Boutique, East End Cupcakes, Old Port Candy Co., and Street and Co., a well-known seafood restaurant, had to close Thursday.
Andrew Robertson of East Brown Cow Management, which manages that building, said most of the damage there was smoke-related. He thought Street and Co. would be affected the most. The restaurant’s owner, Dana Street, did not respond to an email for comment.
The Maine Department of Labor’s Rapid Response team contacted the affected businesses Thursday to coach them about unemployment benefits for employees and other services. An informational meeting is planned from 2 to 3 p.m. Friday at the Portland Career Center on Lancaster Street.
According to the city’s assessing department, the fire-damaged building was built in 1900 and has a taxable value of $835,800. It was not clear how long Soley has owned the property.
Soley recently decided to sell a number of properties on Fore Street that are scheduled to go up for auction next week. The building where the fire started is not among them.
Fires in the Old Port have long been a source of concern. The Old Port was ravaged by the Great Fire of 1866, which claimed more than 1,800 buildings and left several thousand residents homeless. Most of those buildings were built with wood, which burned quickly. Brick buildings replaced them, and most are still standing.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: