Questions remain after the abrupt demolition Friday night of the Nicholaus Building in downtown Schenectady, a beloved landmark that sat for nearly 200 years at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street.
The building came down just over a year to the day after it was evacuated last April, when tenants and patrons of Thai Thai Bistro on the building’s ground floor felt the structure shift around them, causing cracks and separations to appear on the walls and floors. Since then, the property has stood vacant, as lawsuits were launched by the owner of the restaurant and the owner of the building itself.
RELATED: Nicholaus Building demolished
The building sat in limbo until Friday afternoon, when the Schenectady Police Department blocked off portions of Erie Boulevard and State Street in anticipation of an emergency demolition of the building. By 1:30 a.m. early Saturday morning, the three-story historic structure, built in 1820, was reduced in a matter of hours to a tangled mass of brick, glass and wood.
So what happened?
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy on Saturday said that the city hired Clifton Park-based M.J. Engineering and Land Surveying, P.C. to monitor the building after the disturbance last April. Survey markers were then placed all over the structure, which could be used to detect any shifts in the building. Over the last year, city officials met with members of the engineering firm to discuss the building’s condition. At a meeting called Friday around 1:30 p.m., McCarthy said, the firm gave its most dire report yet: The building poses an immediate threat to public safety and could collapse.
McCarthy said a decision was made among the Fire Department, city engineer, acting building inspector and M.J. Engineering to demolish the building immediately.
“The engineering firm we hired to monitor the building issued a report yesterday putting a sense of emergency on it … so we moved to demolish it,” said McCarthy. “It’s unfortunate that scenario played out, but from my perspective of public safety there really weren’t many options.”
Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said the building had recently shifted, a development that ultimately led to its demise.
“The building had an exposed western foundation, and it was shifting to the west,” said Gillen. “This winter certainly did not help things, with all the heavy snowfall.”
The authority is involved in recent development projects along lower State Street, including the $20 million Electric City Apartments project that is approved but has been stalled due to litigation surrounding the adjacent Nicholaus Building.
The authority has also been named in a lawsuit by the Nicholaus Building’s owners, Viroj and Malinee Chompupong, who contend that work on the project next door led to their building’s destabilization. The suit also names a host of construction and architecture planning firms involved in the project, including Highbridge/Prime Development, C2 Design Architecture, Plank, D.A. Collins Construction and Ryan Biggs Clark Davis Engineering and Surveying.
Schenectady is also named as one of the defendants in a lawsuit filed by Thai Thai Bistro owner Piyamas DeMasi that claims property damage and loss of business.
It’s unclear how the lawsuits will affect the Electric City Apartments project, if at all.
Meanwhile, scores of people who watched the demolition live via The Daily Gazette’s Facebook page expressed dismay that the building was being torn down. Dozens of commenters berated the city and the property owner for not doing more to ensure the building’s survival.
“It’s disappointing that people who had invested money in this couldn’t figure out a way to come together and do the right thing,” Stockade Association President Carol DeLamarta said on Saturday.
Gloria Kishton with the Schenectady Heritage Foundation said she wasn’t surprised that the demolition occurred.
“The owners, the developer, Metroplex, the [Thai Thai Bistro] owner. Everyone was lawyered up and suing one another,” said Kishton. “Once you get to that point I think it indicates that nobody is taking responsibility for their actions, and the loser of course is the building, and the residents of Schenectady, who are losing a piece of their historical character.”
Gillen said the city did everything it could to repair the Nicholaus Building, including hiring a New York City-based engineering and preservation firm to devise a plan to save the building. The plan was turned over to the Chompupongs, who did nothing with it, he said. Asked why the building owners should have to pay for repairs from damage they didn’t cause, Gillen said that’s what property owners have to do sometimes- – pay for something up front and recoup the money through insurance or the courts later.
He added that the city had not heard from the owners since last August. The city also offered to buy the building but were met with silence, said Gillen. Six months ago, in an effort to force the Chompupongs to act, the city began levying code violations against the building. Those violations were working their way through the courts when the demolition occurred.
City attorney Carl Falotico said the city will likely drop the code violations in the wake of the demolition, but will be seeking to recover the $168,000 cost of the demolition from the Chompupongs.
The Chompupongs could not be reached for comment.
Falotico and McCarthy agreed that the city did everything within its power to save the Nicholaus Building.
“At the end of the day you’re dealing with private property, and as much as people may think we can go in and do what we want, it’s private property,” said Falotico. “The whole time our position was we wanted to see the building get fixed.”
Falotico said attorneys for the Chompupongs tried to block the building’s emergency demolition Friday, but a state Supreme Court judge upheld the city’s decision.