Building evacuated after city raises questions about its structural integrity

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By Peter Sawyer

A LaFollette building used for mental heath consumers was evacuated last week when the city had questions about its structural integrity.

“Somebody from the city noticed there was a brace on the outside wall,” Ridgeview Psychiatric Hospital and Center, Inc. CEO Bob Benning said. “The brace was placed there by Mr. Senn.”

Ridgeview rents space in the first floor for outpatient and rehabilitation services.

There was a small crack where the bricks meet the window on the side of the building.

“We kinda been watching the crack,” said Mark Senn, the building’s owner.

Senn had braced the building with a 6-by-6 inch wooden board to reinforce the wall.

“Just as a precaution,” Senn said. “I didn’t think anything would happen. Just wanted to be safe. There’s people walking up and down the street.”

However, city officials noticed the board.

“They (the city) initially blocked off the side of the building,” Senn said.

Cones were used by the city to block part of the sidewalk around the cracked wall.

“Our main concern is the people that work there, the people that live above there and the people walking on the street,” LaFollette Mayor Mike Stanfield said. “The building itself is somebody else’s concern. That’s the way the city looks at it.”

Stanfield voiced concerns about the wall falling across the street and hurting somebody.

City officials met with Senn and the Ridgeview staff last Thursday, Benning said. A letter was presented to Senn that stated the building was unsafe.

The city asked Senn to have a structural engineer sign off on the safety of the building, Senn said. The city recommended nobody enter the building until the structural engineer approved the facility.

“We closed our operations at 12 noon that day,” Benning said.

Senn had planned on having a structural engineer assess the integrity of the building, he said. He engaged Richard Collins to look at the evaluate the building on Thursday.

Based of Collins’ “probationary assessment,” people were allowed to enter the building again, except for the break room on the first floor and one apartment on the second floor, Benning said.

“So we got somebody up there Thursday (by about) noon,” Senn said. “The building was okayed Thursday-that the structural integrity was there and it was okay to enter the building.”

A tenant living in an apartment had to be evacuated and relocated to another apartment that was empty but had power, Senn said. While many of the tenants living in the second floor apartments are Ridgeview clients, they rent from Senn individually, Senn said.

“There are some apartments on the second floor,” Benning said. “Although we don’t manage those apartments. They are managed by the owner of the building.”

Before Ridgeview was allowed to occupy the building, it began to look for alternate locations from which to operate, Benning said.

“We had contacted a couple local churches,” he said.

Ridgeview also has another location in LaFollette where it could relocate some of its services, Benning said.

While Ridgeview and the tenants of the second floor apartments were allowed to return to the building last Thursday, the city asked for a more thorough report from a structural engineer Friday, Benning said.

“They got to bring a structural engineer in to make sure that the building is safe, “ Stanfield said. “They’ve got so many days to comply with our order.”

“We’re kind of in a wait position,” Benning said.

Benning is looking at other options in case they have to evacuate Friday, Benning said.

“Exploring those options as we speak,” Benning said. “That’s where we stand right now. We’re looking at both short-term and long-term options in the event that we have to evacuate the building. We’re doing that because we don’t want to disrupt our services.”

However, Senn had a “full-blown inspection” completed Friday, he said.

“I need to share that report with the city,” Senn said. “The city will get a copy of the engineering report as well as a method of repair.”

Senn gave the report to the city Tuesday.

“They have a copy down there today,” Senn said.

The building was built in 1903 and has a multilayered brick wall, Senn said. It was completely gutted in 1999, and everything on the inside is new, Senn said. Therefore, the bricks on the outside layer are “strictly for looks,” Senn said.

Based on this information, Senn has decided to remove bricks from the damaged area and replace them. However the building itself was never in danger of falling, he said.

“We’re hoping we’ll start repairs on it the latter part of this week,” Senn said.

As far as Stanfield knows, the city will be satisfied the building is safe as long as a structural engineer signs off on it, he said.