March 12, 2010

Evictions ordered as city, landlord tangleCONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE


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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Tuesday, January 6, 2009: The City of Portland is evicting tenants from 10 Exchange St. due to fire and safety violations. Residential tenants have to be out by Friday, business tenants have two weeks.

Jack Milton

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Janis Beitzer, of Portland's Downtown District, Denise and Dean Cole, owners of d. cole jewelers, Gregory Mitchell and Nelle Hanig, of the City's Economic Development Division, talk Tuesday, January 6, 2009, about finding alternate arangements for the Cole's business. The City of Portland is evicting tenants from 10 Exchange St. due to fire and safety violations. Residential tenants have to be out by Friday, business tenants have two weeks.

Jack Milton

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Staff Writer

A dispute between the city of Portland and landlord Joseph Soley over alleged fire-safety violations has led the city to order the eviction of all residential and commercial tenants at 10 Exchange St.

City officials say the sprawling building in the heart of the Old Port lacks adequate fire alarms, sprinklers and emergency lighting, and could be deadly if a fire broke out.

''You might have pitch-black hallways in a fire and have to try to find the doors and the way out,'' said Director of Planning Penny Littell. ''There's significant risk to the people living there and the firefighters trying to save the lives of the people living in the building.''

City officials said they have been working with Soley to get him to improve the four-story building since September 2007, when a small fire alerted firefighters to potential problems. Soley had vendors assess the building's needs, but he never did the work and apparently has decided not to do it, said Fire Chief Fred Lamontagne.

Lamontagne said the building has sprinklers and fire alarms, but the systems in different parts of the structure are not connected and are inadequate for how the building is used. He said alarms wouldn't alert residents on upper floors of a fire on the first floor or in the basement.

City officials said they did not want to resort to eviction, particularly at this time of year, but a deadly fire would be worse.

The city estimates that 20 to 50 people live in the building's 24 residential units, some of which are unoccupied. And some of the business offices have significant turnover, Lamontagne said.

Soley wouldn't discuss specifics of the dispute, other than to describe the city's action as ''retribution.''

This is not the first time the city has tussled with Soley over his management of downtown commercial buildings. Littell said the city has documented disputes in its files from 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2003.

In 2002, the city required Soley to sign an agreement on managing the building at 10 Exchange, covering everything from requiring a live-in property manager to installing screens to keep residents from throwing things out the windows.

The city took action then under the disorderly house ordinance, after police were called to disturbances at the building 11 times in one month and more than 100 times in the previous year.

Tenants were furious Tuesday that they are paying the price for the dispute.

''The tenants of this building, both residential and commercial, are being used as pawns'' in a dispute between the city and Soley, said Ken Kantro, whose business, Lovell Designs Inc., leases 6,000 square feet in the building for making and selling jewelry.

Kantro said he can understand the fire danger posed for residents who sleep in the building, but thinks the city should be more lenient with businesses. He also said the city did not keep tenants informed about the ongoing discussions.

''At an extremely difficult time, vis a vis the economy, this is a little draconian,'' he said, noting that a closure would put 10 people in his business out of work.

The city's notice to vacate the property and posting against occupancy means everyone must be gone from the building until the safety codes have been met. The city can't actually force Soley to make the improvements, but can bar him from leasing units.

''He has the right to abandon the use of that property if he wants to, or make it a vacant property,'' said Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city.

Soley would still have to maintain the building, but would not have to meet the stringent codes for residential and commercial property.

For the time being, Soley has been instructed to have a person keeping watch around the clock in case there is a fire, Lamontagne said.

He said the violations are not the result of recent changes in the fire code, but reflect how the building's use has evolved and how the safety systems have not kept pace, even though they are functional.

Soley repeatedly promised to make the necessary improvements but has not followed through, Lamontagne said.

A telephone call to a Soley attorney was not returned.

The city's notice to residents from Corporation Counsel Gary Wood reads that the building must be emptied because of ''serious fire safety code violations that expose you and anyone living with you in your unit to physical injury or death if a fire breaks out at 10 Exchange Street.''

The notice urges residents to contact a lawyer to discuss their legal rights as tenants in relation to relocation and its costs.

''If you do not vacate the premises by the close of business on Friday, January 9th, at 2:00 p.m., the city will seek a court order on Monday, January 12th, to remove you from the premises,'' the notice said.

The building is valued by the city for tax purposes at $2.7 million, and the half-acre lot of land at $314,000. It was purchased in 1995 for $1.4 million.

The building was built in 1900 and holds 52,476 square feet of space, according to city records. It includes such tenants as D. Cole Jewelers, J.L. Coombs and the Leather Shop, and for years was home to The Movies on Exchange Street, although the movie house is relocating to the Portland Museum of Art at the end of next week.

The city dispatched its economic development director to meet with the commercial tenants and discuss alternative locations.

''We really want them to stay in Portland and be part of the Old Port, but we've really exhausted all our efforts,'' Lamontagne said.

Gina Rourke, owner of the boutique Nomia, said that even if the businesses can find new space, business would suffer because customers may not look for the new location.

Kantro said he has business interruption insurance, but the coverage does not apply if the business closes because of city action.

On Tuesday, there were few people inside the sprawling third and fourth floors of the building, where the apartments are located, and no signs of the impending evictions.

Stas Yurkevich, who rents a place in the building for $650 a month, said he had just returned from a commercial fishing trip and now has to scramble to move in one day before he heads out again.

''I don't know what I'm going to do,'' he said.

Yurkevich disagreed with the city's decision to evict residents with what he described as one week's notice. ''I think it's not right, absolutely not,'' he said.

Yurkevich said he knew that workers had been inspecting the building, but he was not aware of the dispute with the city.

Tammy Munson, director of inspections for Portland, said efforts to notify residents have been thwarted. On Monday, city workers placed stickers announcing the occupancy ban on each apartment door, but by the time they were done with the fourth floor, the ones on lower floors had been removed, she said.

The city has alerted residents to resources such as the tenants association and landlords association, and has made caseworkers with the city's social service division available to work specifically with displaced tenants at 10 Exchange St., also known as 7 Fox Court.

Lamontagne said the city communicated with Soley as recently as Monday, trying to convince him to make the improvements and forestall the evictions, but without success.

''It's his choice to leave it vacant,'' Lamontagne said. ''We're certainly hopeful we can come to an expeditious solution.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Additional Photos

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STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN EWING -- Tuesday, June 29, 1999 -- Portland landlord Joe Soley speaks to reporters following the judgement in a lawsuit against him filed by tenents of one of his buildings.


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