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Records suggest Glendale slow to police unsafe buildings

by Rebekah L. Sanders and Craig Harris - Feb. 7, 2010 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

Shoppers continued to stream through the doors of a Glendale furniture store seven months after a city building-safety inspector ordered the business shut down because the structure was deemed imminently unsafe.

Glendale's top building-safety official said the city did not enforce the shutdown order because officials were not aware Big Tin Shed was still operating, despite multiple site visits by a building-safety inspector. In addition to Big Tin Shed, the city last year wrote up two other businesses for major safety violations, yet they remained open at least six months.

All three business owners say the city unfairly punished them. Additionally, Big Tin Shed's owner says a structural engineer's report found no immediate danger.

A senior building inspector labeled each property an "imminent hazard," Glendale Building Safety Department's highest definition of danger to the public, according to records obtained by The Arizona Republic.

Glendale's city codes call for quick enforcement when buildings are found to be imminent hazards.

Glendale took no significant enforcement on the properties until The Republic last month obtained public records and asked why the buildings remained open.

On Monday, the city sent police to Big Tin Shed, 5855 N. 51st Ave., to threaten the owner with arrest if he did not clear customers out and close. On Thursday, a citation was issued when the company defied the city's order.

Early last week, Assistant Deputy City Manager Deborah Mazoyer, who has run the Building Safety Department for a decade, said the city "had no reason to believe" customers were still allowed into the business.

Yet city records show one of Mazoyer's senior inspectors had monthly conversations with Big Tin Shed from July through December. In September, the inspector noted he had "several on site meetings with the owner."

On three recent occasions, Republic reporters walked into the business to see customers shopping in a warehouse packed with couches, tables, bookshelves and beds. A yellow sign posted outside by a city inspector on July 2 reads, "DO NOT ENTER. UNSAFE TO OCCUPY."

Bob Brazil, the owner, insisted there was nothing wrong with his 320,000-square-foot building. After receiving the citation Thursday, Brazil said he had no choice but to temporarily close. A city hearing is scheduled for Feb. 23.

Dispute over supports

Brazil founded the business in 1966, its name reflecting its humble origins. Today, at the location it's occupied since 1972, the roof is held up by cedar posts lining the salesroom floor, posing great concern to building-safety and fire inspectors.

"The posts supporting the roof system are in extremely poor condition with many failing or in the process of failure," Senior Building Inspector Mark Ptashkin wrote Brazil on July 7.

A Fire Department inspector found that furniture blocked walkways to fire exits, which were too few and had little signage. One door would not open; the other led to a fenced area crowded with flammable paint and gas, according to inspection reports.

Other businesses cited

Two other industrial businesses were operating without repairs months after Glendale designated them imminent hazards.

The city notified Tim Hammer in May about safety problems at his paint company, TJM Painting, and general-contract business, Hammer Homes.

The general contractor said he bought the property four or five years ago. Sections had been rented to businesses, including an auto mechanic and a wooden-pallet storage company.

Electrical wiring was exposed, used incorrectly in wet and explosive locations, and unprotected from short-circuiting, inspection reports say. Stacks of pallets restricted access to the property, potentially endangering firefighters in an emergency, a fire inspector found.

It took until October for Hammer to turn off his tenants' electricity and force them out for not doing repairs.

Now, city officials say the property is compliant, but the unrepaired buildings cannot be used.

"Their job is safety, I understand," Hammer said Thursday. But "there were buildings there that had been existing for the last 10 or 15 years. Why all of a sudden now are they raising a stink about it?"

Todd Wills, who has run Wills & Sons Restoration and Choice Auto Paints for five years, was cited in August.

Paint was being stored and mixed in a makeshift building with unsafe wiring and no ventilation, and fire extinguishers were out of date, inspection reports said.

It took until October for Wills to remove the paint buildings and tell most renters to leave.

For the next four months, the city did not communicate with the business, though problems remained, city officials said. On Tuesday, the day after police visited Big Tin Shed, building-safety officials arrived to set up a meeting with Wills on outstanding violations.

"You (Glendale) haven't had a problem with me in five years. Were you guys just inept the last four years?" Wills said. "I don't have any problem with the Fire Department coming out once a year. Everyone gets complacent once in a while."

He said other issues seemed overblown. The city disagrees.

"We treat everybody the same," Mazoyer said.

Guided by code

Cities and counties across the nation make sure buildings are safe by enforcing the International Building Code published by the Washington, D.C.-based International Code Council, which has 40,000 members.

Kermit Robinson, a senior technical staff member for the council, said he would have immediately shut down Big Tin Shed after it was labeled an "imminently unsafe hazard." Property owners in Glendale can be given a misdemeanor citation and fined up to $2,500 and/or imprisoned for up to six months for failing to heed the city's safety orders.

Robinson said many cities that find imminent hazards shut off utilities immediately to make sure business stops.

In neighboring Phoenix, there is no delay.

"When it's determined to not be safe, it's posted and there is no exception. You would not let folks in," said Michael Hammett of the Phoenix Development Services Department. "The goal is not to shut down a business, but if a building is not safe and it's a public-safety issue, then you have to take action."

In Tempe, the owner of a building deemed an imminent hazard has 48 hours to address the problems. In Chandler, the top building inspector said it's rare a building would be labeled an imminent hazard, but it would have to be fixed immediately or vacated.

Quick action required

Glendale's code book calls for quick action when unsafe conditions exist. If repair permits are required, they are due within 30 days of the city's notification of violations. In less-serious cases, repairs must be made within 60 days. For imminently hazardous buildings, the codes contain no hard-and-fast timeline for repairs, but such buildings must be vacated immediately.

When owners don't comply, the Building Safety Department has the authority to ask utilities to shut off electricity, call hearings with third-party arbiters, begin civil and criminal proceedings, and repair or demolish buildings at the owners' cost, according to city codes.

But Glendale officials say they try to work with building owners first.

"You don't want to force businesses to close up," said Russ Romney, assistant city attorney.

To help Big Tin Shed, Glendale's Economic Development Department found new locations so the owner wouldn't have to pay for repairs, but Brazil said he doesn't have the money to move.

Mazoyer said the city prefers not to ask utility companies to shut off power to condemned buildings.

But Arizona Public Service spokesman Steven Gotfried said electricity can be cut quickly if the city provides proof of hazards and the utility customer is notified.

City officials say they delayed tough enforcement at Big Tin Shed because it appeared the owner was trying to comply. They also say they weren't as worried once a structural engineer hired by the store called in late October to say the building wasn't "in imminent danger of failure," inspector's notes show.

Mazoyer took the engineer at his word, she said, because the two city inspectors who examined the cedar posts do not have structural-engineering expertise. The hired engineer provided no documentation until last week, which the city sent back because of insufficient information, she said.

The future for Big Tin Shed is uncertain, said David Brazil, the owner's son.

"We are furniture people," he said. "We don't know how to do anything else."


America the Messy Yard Police State