Firetraps across city rated `X' for danger; More buildings derelict since fire.
WORCESTER - A decade after the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. blaze killed six firefighters and set in motion a push to renovate or tear down dilapidated buildings, more than 24 vacant structures deemed potential hazards to firefighters remain across the city.
From the brick hulks of former mill buildings, their wooden floors rotted through, to fire-gutted three-deckers, the Worcester Fire Department's list of the city's most dangerous buildings, those marked with red-and-white "X" signs, numbered 22 as of this month.
That's twice as many as were on the list on the fifth anniversary of the warehouse fire tragedy in 2004.
An additional seven structures were marked with red-and-white "/" signs, which denote unsafe buildings with less serious potential hazards to firefighters.
Over the years, scores of buildings on the Fire Department's list of unsafe structures have been torn down or renovated. But as the wrecking ball smashed some off the list, fire officials added other dilapidated structures as the elements or fire undermined their structural integrity.
Then an economic bomb exploded amid the effort. The real estate market crashed in 2008. Plunging home values here and across the country were followed by a rash of foreclosures and a deep, persistent global recession.
The number of vacant or abandoned buildings in the city shot from about 170 five years ago to roughly 420 as of this month, according to Deputy Fire Chief Timothy J. Gray.
"There are buildings that have just been deteriorating. The redevelopment plans are on hold because of the economy," said Deputy Chief Gray, head of the department's fire prevention program.
The deputy chief also attributed some of the increase on the list to improved vigilance on the part of the city, which launched a neighborhood stabilization program to combat the corrosive impact of foreclosures. With a Property Review Team of city workers out going house-to-house looking for code violations, it was inevitable that they'd uncover previously unknown hazards, he said.
"We're out there all over now with the PRT and the neighborhood sweeps and all that," he said. "We're more in tune with the problem. We're out there in the backyards looking at things in more detail."
Deputy Chief Gray makes the call on which designation an unsafe building gets. He said he has been leaning toward issuing more X's in recent years out of an abundance of caution.
The "X" designation means that hazards are such that, in the case of a fire, the incident commander should consider fighting the blaze from the outside rather than sending firefighters inside or up on the roof. The "/" designation warns firefighters to battle any blaze "with extreme caution."
"We put a lot of the X's for the fact the roof is spongy or unstable. We don't want anyone up there if the roof is bad or there are holes," the deputy chief said.
Seven of the buildings on his list got there as a result of fires that gutted the buildings without burning them to the ground.
In August, a two-alarm blaze heavily damaged the second floor of a house at 531 Chandler St. The property was added to the unsafe list with an "X" designation three days later.
The owner, George J. Carling of Holland, said he bought the house for his daughter to use as a day care center in 2006. He doesn't expect the building to remain on the unsafe list much longer.
"I'm working with the insurance company, trying to get the settlement, so we can tear it down," Mr. Carling said. "My daughter would like to rebuild and get her business going again."
Mr. Carling said the fire-gutted structure was boarded up immediately. The city gave him a list of other things to do, such as sweeping up broken glass from the area.
Mr. Carling said razing the charred building will cost about $30,000.
The future of other structures on the list is less certain.
The former Paris Cinema on Franklin Street is branded with an "X" sign. The building, which most recently housed an adult theater, is owned by a holding company controlled by the principals of the Boston-based Mayo Group, which is renovating several buildings on the block.
The Mayo Group's Edward O'Donnell, vice president of development, said the company bought the vacant theater as a "defensive investment" because it already had poured millions of dollars in neighboring buildings. As it stands, though, the company has no specific renovation plans for the deteriorating brick theater.
"At this point, it's hard to say. It's really hard to attach any type of timetable or to say what we think the reuse will be," Mr. O'Donnell said.
In the meantime, he said, the Mayo Group has been cooperating with the Fire Department and doing its best to keep the building secure. Homeless people have managed to break into the building on several occasions, he said.
"We have had to resecure that building three or four times, but they find a way to get in," Mr. O'Donnell said.
"We've worked with the Worcester Fire Department. They called us and wanted to go through the building, and we granted them entry," he added. "Everybody who remembers that night 10 years ago knows how important it is to work with the Fire Department."
Deputy Chief Gray said that all the owners of the buildings on the list have been cooperative and none has beenfined for failing to comply with a 2001 city ordinance requiring they secure buildings and remove dangerous materials, among other things. The ordinance provides for fines of up to $300 a day.
A vacant portion of the former manufacturing building occupied by the Worcester Youth Center at 326 Chandler St. also is on the list. The center does not use the part of the building marked with the telltale "X," and would have to raise some $300,000 just to have it torn down, said Executive Director Hilda Ramirez.
Ms. Ramirez said the center's board of directors has considered developing the space to be leased to other nonprofits or for use as a satellite campus for a local college or university.
"Could this be an opportunity for the neighborhood and the Youth Center?" Ms. Ramirez said. "From my perspective as the executive director, I'm an advocate of `Could we have a business there to help support the Youth Center?'"
Several buildings on the list are not under consideration for redevelopment. The sprawling brick complex at 95 Grand St., owned by the city, has been designated for demolition in the coming months, officials said.
A brick industrial building at 1 Brussels St., owned by a private trust, is being prepared for demolition, and is on track to be torn down at the owner's expense before the Dec. 3 warehouse fire anniversary, according to a representative of the demolition company.
Four buildings that are part of the same complex that once included the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. property remain on the list with an uncertain future, officials said.
Framingham developer Ding On "Tony" Kwan, who also owned the Cold Storage building, owns the four buildings through his company DOK Realty LLC. They are clustered together on Franklin and Arctic streets near the new fire station.
"Those are deteriorating," Deputy Chief Gray said. "But he works on them. He repairs the problems. He just repaired the roof and fixed a few other things."
ART: PHOTOS; GRAPH; CHART
CUTLINE: (1) A man who described himself as homeless takes a drink from a nip bottle across the street from empty industrial buildings at 93 and 95 Grand St. Marked as hazardous, they are on the city's vacant buildings list. More photos at www.telegram.com. (2) Pedestrians walk past 282 Franklin St., right, and 288 Franklin St., left. Both vacant buildings, listed by Worcester as hazardous, are owned by Framingham developer Ding On "Tony" Kwan through his company DOK Realty LLC. Mr. Kwan also owned the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. property where six Worcester firefighters died in 1999. (GRAPH) Total Worcester vacant buildings (CHART) Worcester vacant buildings survey
PHOTOG: (PHOTOS) T&G Staff Photos/PAUL KAPTEYN (GRAPH, CHART) T&G Staff/DON LANDGREN JR.