September 21, 2013

Fore Street fire businesses could be closed for weeks

Damage from Thursday's blaze affects workers and apartment dwellers in adjacent buildings.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Some of the businesses directly affected by Thursday's fire on Fore Street in the Old Port may not reopen for several weeks, depending on how long it takes to bring the building up to code.

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In the aftermath of Thursday morning's fire, clean-up crews dispose of rubble and lost stock from neighboring businesses of 420 Fore St. on Friday.

Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer

Joe's New York Pizza, Mark's Place and the Dancing Elephant II were damaged most by the blaze.

Portland fire investigators have determined that the fire, which began around 1:30 a.m., was accidental and that it originated in the utilities section of the subbasement of a building at 416 and 420 Fore St.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said no additional information about the fire's cause was available. The fire department's report on the fire has not been finished.

Joe Kelley, who owns the pizza shop, said that even if he is able to repair the damage to his restaurant and bar quickly, the city could still say the building is not able to be occupied. He's worried about what the "forced vacation" could mean for his workers.

"The landlord may be OK not getting rent payments for a while, but my employees can't go without a paycheck," he said.

Kelley and a handful of his employees were the only people who took advantage of an informational meeting Friday offered by the Maine Department of Labor for the affected businesses. The department's rapid response coordinator, Marty Pearlmutter, encouraged all employees to file unemployment claims.

Kelley said the unemployment payments may not equal his employees' salaries, but "it's better than nothing."

Other businesses in adjacent buildings in that section of Fore Street sustained smoke and water damage. But those businesses -- including Street & Co., East End Cupcake, Old Port Candy and CS Boutique -- could open much sooner, according to city officials.

The decision about when the businesses can reopen depends on the condition of their utility systems, including electrical systems. Because of the close proximity of the buildings to each other, the utilities of some businesses connect to those of other businesses.

Clegg said it's likely that the three businesses most affected would be closed for an extended period while the property owner repairs damage caused by the fire and brings the property back up to code.

In addition to the affected business, eight adults who lived in apartments on the second and third floors of the Fore Street buildings were displaced. The Portland chapter of the American Red Cross has placed all eight in temporary housing, according to spokesman John Lamb.

Earlier this year, the building's owner, Joseph Soley, and property manager, P.J. Roberts, were cited for 11 fire safety violations in that building. Those violations had not been addressed prior to Thursday's fire, but Clegg said even if the violations had been fixed, it would not have stopped the blaze.

Minor fire safety violations are not unusual, Clegg said. In 2010, the City Council updated its fire safety regulations to match standards outlined by the National Fire Protection Association. That change, coupled with the age of the city's downtown buildings, has led to a number of buildings being cited for violations in accordance with the newer standards.

Clegg said an overwhelming majority of those violations do not trigger immediate action. Fire officials require immediate action only when violations involve a fire protection system that is not operating adequately or when an egress point has been blocked.

None of the fire safety violations found in the Fore Street property met those criteria, Clegg said.

Soley did not return multiple calls for comment Thursday and Friday. Roberts declined to speak with a reporter when reached by telephone on Friday.

Soley is a prominent downtown property owner who has had previous legal problems with the city. In 2009, the city deemed his property at 10 Exchange St. unsafe, temporarily evicting businesses and tenants in that space. Code violations at that property were discovered after a small fire.

More than a decade ago, Soley was successfully sued by tenants over the conditions of one of his apartments. The four tenants refused to pay rent after the problems went unfixed, so Soley seized their belongings. They were awarded $1 million in punitive damages.

 

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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Today's poll: Fire code violations

Should Portland enforce stricter inspection requirements to address fire code violations?

Yes

No

View Results