SCHENECTADY — A crumbling building located in the heart of downtown Schenectady has been in a state of suspended animation for the past week after being hit with a series of code violations.
Despite the city condemning one wing of 271-277 State St. last month and plastering the structure with red “order-to-vacate” notices for unsafe conditions, tenants have skirted the directive, freely coming and going throughout the week.
“I don’t feel unsafe at all,” said a resident who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The only thing I’m worried about is the building being demolished by the city.”
But as officials scramble to coordinate a response and keep tenants safe, the unfolding situation has exposed potential holes and deficiencies in the city’s efforts to improve its handling of codes issues in the wake of the fatal Jay Street fire.
The Wedgeway Professional Building has a long record of violations under both current and previous ownership that officials have acknowledged have drawn parallels to the 2015 inferno that killed four, including electrical and fire safety issues.
Officials, however, are struggling with remediation, tracking tenants in the sprawling structure and holding the building owner accountable.
Owner William Eichengrun was scheduled to meet code enforcement officers on Friday morning to allow a full inspection, including the apartment units city officials cannot access.
But he canceled the appointment, according to Chief Building Inspector Chris Lunn.
“We did go to the property anyways,” Lunn said.
City inspectors declared part of the structure dangerous and unsafe last month after determining the fire escape was missing dozens of bolts, bricks falling from the crumbling rooftop parapet and an elevator hadn’t passed a safety inspection.
Those violations had not been remediated by Friday, Lunn said, and a chain-link fence erected on the Erie Boulevard side of the structure remains.
Additionally, the Photo-Lab located on the State Street side has been unheated this fall, prompting another violation.
Eichengrun didn’t return request for comment from The Daily Gazette on Friday.
In the runup to the 2015 blaze, the city Fire Department pointed out life-threatening violations at 104 Jay St., including the lack of fire doors in stairwells, inoperable smoke alarms and concerns about the building’s fire alarm box and residents’ efforts to silence it.
“Building poses numerous hazards that can/will be fatal to its occupants and EMS,” wrote a lieutenant in 2015.
But the Codes Department did not act on the complaints because the city lacked a system to log, track and ensure the issues had been addressed, according to a Schenectady County grand jury report.
There are no open code violations at Wedgeway that indicate any comparable life-threatening safety problems, and fire officials have said they haven’t responded to any major incidents this past year.
But without full access to the building, or an engineering report on the building’s structural stability, Lunn can’t be sure.
So far, Eichengrun has provided neither, he said.
“What we have to do is open up every spot in the building,” Lunn said.
The city temporarily ordered residents out earlier this fall for electrical hazards and non-functioning smoke detectors, problems that have since been remediated.
A 2017 inspection declared several apartment units unsafe because they were unheated. Tickets were also issued for lack of emergency exit lighting in a hallway and hazardous electrical wiring.
The building’s interior is a warren of irregularly-shaped hallways and rooms spread across six stories.
Not only do city officials lack access, but they’re also unclear on how many apartment units are actually in the building:
Lunn believed there were four units, but appeared surprised when a Daily Gazette reporter alerted him to a previously unknown apartment that is occupied.
Despite the condemnation order, the apartment units are being rented illegally: Eichengrun lacks the rental certificates required to house tenants, a violation of a new state law that prohibits landlords from collecting rent without a valid certificate of occupancy.
That city-issued document certifies there are no imminent life-safety issues.
Since last month’s condemnation, Lunn has made contact with several tenants, directing them to Schenectady County Action Program (SCAP) for relocation assistance.
At least one heeded the order, he said, and went to SCAP.
But others refused — and the city hasn’t compelled them to leave.
One occupant, he said, was clearly distraught and refused to let him into her apartment — even after she told him the roof was leaking.
The city issued over a dozen violations last winter for numerous deficiencies, including deteriorating walls and ceilings throughout the building, leaking basement pipes, improper gas lines and bricks missing mortar.
The city reinspected the structure in January after reports of a flooded basement and later issued a stop-work order because Eichengrun allegedly didn’t obtain the proper permits to replace the boiler.
But despite the rash of violations, Lunn acknowledged follow-up by the city fell through the cracks after the code officer in charge left his position.
The city will now commission an engineering study itself.
“We are currently negotiating work to be performed by an engineering firm hired by the city,” Lunn said. “We will also be processing appearances tickets next week.”
The building is located at the city’s busiest intersection.
At night, lights glow from the structure, televisions flicker and silhouettes pass in front of windows.
Following last week’s monster snowstorm, the parking lot was plowed and full of vehicles.
But as of Friday night, the city hadn’t made efforts to ensure people weren’t in the building illegally.
Remaining residents appeared uncertain of the building’s status and downplayed the safety violations, accusing the city of having a heavy hand and a vendetta against the owner.
The tenant who is worried about demolition said they lack the resources to relocate.
“It’s hard to find someone who will take cats,” the tenant said.
The tenant believes Eichengrun is sincere about wanting to make improvements, and has previously been attentive to fixing problems in the apartment.
“He’s not anyone who should be made out to be a villain,” the tenant said.
But the resident acknowledged losing power one weekend, and used a temporary system of power strips and lanterns.
“This building is not going to catch on fire,” the tenant said.
State Street Tattoo Co. also remained open throughout the week, its front windows blazing with old-fashioned light bulbs.
Owner Jim Pardi has been at the location for eight years.
Eichengrun has been quick to remediate past code violations, said Pardi, who doesn’t believe the structure is in poor enough condition to warrant condemnation.
“This building is getting a bad rap,” he said. “It’s not bad enough to be taken down — if you love history, I think it’s worth fixing.”
For the order to be lifted, Eichengrun will be required to remedy violations within a designated time frame.
But even if the structure is repaired, Lunn worries that the city’s “order to vacate” system is flawed and said it’s frustrating that the city has no effective way to police condemned structures.
City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said the process of tracking orders to vacate varies based on the exact circumstances.
“We don’t want to go directly to the most draconian approach if we don’t have to,” he said.
In some situations, the city takes a common-sense approach, Falotico said, by making contact with tenants and asking why they’re still there and directing them to appropriate services.
Court orders requiring immediate eviction are an option, he said.
“We could take them to court on a number of charges and enforce an order against them,” Falotico said.
Asked if it’s the responsibility of building owners to ensure compliance, Falotico said it’s the “shared responsibility of the parties involved.”
In some cases, leases can actually give tenants control over portions of the building, he said.
Police Chief Eric Clifford said code officers who believe structures are illegally being occupied can call police.
“If we catch them, we will arrest them for trespassing,” Clifford said.
But the calls must be prompted by Codes Department employees, he said, who do not work at night.
Officers do not have a standing list of citywide orders to vacate, and it is not routine to patrol condemned buildings, Clifford said.
“We do not have a running database to pull up to seek that information out,” Clifford said.
But the city is working on rolling out new software designed to break down informational silos, he said, and improve communication between departments.
“We’re looking at it and talking about it,” Clifford said on Friday. “We’re in the development stages and we just don’t have it executed yet.”
People ignoring orders to stay out of condemned buildings only to narrowly avert danger is not unprecedented.
Earlier this year, code enforcement officers red-tagged a two-family home on Georgetta Dix Plaza for electrical hazards.
But the tenants, including several children, went back in and narrowly escaped with their lives after those electrical problems led to an early-morning fire in March.
Donna Gonzalez, who works as SCAP’s coordinator for housing and community services, said there are numerous reasons tenants ignore orders to vacate, from having nowhere to go to the financial costs associated with moving.
“They find other ways to heat their house,” Gonzalez said, speaking generally and not in regards to any specific location. “People have children, pets and don’t want to go to the [county Department of Social Services] and shelters, and have remained intact in those houses.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy stopped short of saying if the city should re-examine “order to vacate” policies in the wake of the emerging issues at the Wedgeway.
“We always act with the public’s best interest and we want people to take these seriously,” he said. “But unfortunately, people don’t always act in their own best interest. You have situations with potentially great risk and we want to mitigate that.”
Following the Jay Street fire, state and county reports faulted the city and recommended policy changes, particularly when it comes to sharing information between departments.
A state comptroller report said the city must improve how it inspects and tracks larger apartment buildings and rapped the city’s system of relying on apartment owners to voluntarily sign up for inspections upon change of tenant or change of building ownership.
“Relying on voluntary compliance is an improper way to conduct an inspection program,” stated the report.
Eichengrun purchased the Wedgeway last year for $847,000 from longtime owner John A. Matarazzo, according to tax records, and the city inspected the structure afterward.
“There was a lot of unaddressed failures at that time,” Lunn said.
The report also found that the city Codes Department only tracked a small portion of its multi-unit buildings and failed to ensure that each is inspected within a state-required three-year cycle.
Such a system results in violations that go uncorrected, decline in housing quality and “significantly increases the safety risks” to residents, according to the report.
The report also called for the city to adopt a written policy for inspections of multi-unit buildings to ensure inspections, followups and state law compliance and monitor effectiveness to ensure inspections occur as required and maintain a property list and ensure it is complete through various checks.
McCarthy, in the city’s formal response, said the city has made changes, including creating a digital list of multiple dwelling units and inspecting buildings the city had previously neglected to inspect during the three-year minimum interval.
All of those are currently on track, Lunn said.
“That’s absolutely happening,” he said. “Everything in the comptroller’s audit, we’re definitely on it.”
Implementing those reforms is just one aspect of the city’s vow to improve in the aftermath of the fatal fire.
Another initiative announced at the same time was a restructuring of city departments designed to improve coordination, particularly between the Police, Fire and Building departments.
The city issued an executive order placing the Office of the Building Inspector and the Bureau of Code Enforcement under the direct supervision of the commissioner of public safety.
Efforts to improve coordination between departments are on-track despite Eidens’ decision earlier this year to briefly retire and return in a part-time capacity focusing on police discipline, McCarthy said, and Falvo is continuing to work to bring discipline to code enforcement with the commissioner’s ongoing “peripheral” support.
“Judge Eidens continues to lend expertise and leadership in that,” McCarthy said.
Those efforts will continue next year with the addition of a new city staffer designed to help coordinate blight efforts.
The grant-funded “neighborhood stabilization coordinator” will play a leading role in ensuring data is effectively transmitted between departments, McCarthy said.
“It’s getting all information in a format that is easily understandable and accessible,” McCarthy said.