Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 6, 2007

Arson investigation awaits shoring up of building

Damage estimate following Sunday's fire soars for 100-year-old downtown Palo Alto structure

by Sue Dremann, Don Kazak, Jay Thorwaldson

Temporary shoring up of the fire-damaged Walgreens building in downtown Palo Alto was scheduled to begin Thursday so arson investigators could get into the gutted building as soon as possible on Friday, according to Palo Alto Police Agent Rich Bullerjahn.

The arson investigation itself is expected to take three to five days once local, county and federal investigators get inside, he said.

Damage estimates have escalated to between $5 million and $7 million, as opposed to an initial estimate of $2 million to $3 million.

The building at University Avenue and Bryant Street was constructed in 1900, according to city records. It is so severely damaged that it will probably have to be demolished once an arson investigation has been completed, Bullerjahn said earlier in the week.

"The walls are unstable," he said, based on a report by a structural engineer brought in Monday afternoon. The roof, which had provided lateral support for the walls, was burned through and partially collapsed in the dramatic fire that burned most of the night Sunday and into Monday morning.

If it is deemed necessary to demolish the building, Bullerjahn said, it needs to be done soon so University and Bryant can be reopened to foot and vehicle traffic. A number of stores are open in the area, but are suffering economically because people are staying away and don't know they're open, business owners said. (See accompanying article.)

The city's priority this week was to bring in a company that specializes in shoring up damaged buildings. The job was expected to begin Thursday, although as of the Weekly's press deadline, no visible work had started.

Shoring up the building will be paid for by the building's insurance company, Bullerjahn said.

Because of the danger of a complete collapse, the protective zone around the building was increased to include the sidewalk on the north side of University Avenue, as well as sidewalks partially along Bryant Street, near Walgreens.

Three blocks of University and one block of Bryant Street are expected to be closed at least for the next week, and possibly longer. (See accompanying road-closures map.) One store owner said he was told it could be up to three weeks.

Bullerjahn declined to discuss "evidence" that leads investigators to believe the fire is arson, except to say that it involved something inside the building.

The Santa Clara County Arson Task Force has an agent on the scene, who was scheduled to be joined Thursday by representatives of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

An owner of the building, Lu Lu Teng of Los Altos Hills, was reached by the Weekly on Monday and expressed her distress over the fire.

"It's a tragedy for us," she said. "We're pretty stressed. We are shocked — like, how could this happen?"

"We can't do anything right now" pending a meeting with the fire department, she said.

The building is owned officially by Milpitas & Dixon Associates LLC, according to Santa Clara County records. Teng and Eric Wong of Los Altos Hills are listed as principals of the corporation, according to state records. But Wong told the Weekly he is only the attorney for the partnership.

Teng said the partnership includes five people, who also own some apartments. She said she could not comment on pre-fire reports of plans to renovate the building because the lease was still in effect for an upstairs tenant, Liberate Technologies, even though another lease to the San Jose Mercury-News had ended.

The Mercury-News relocated its North County bureau to San Jose earlier this spring, and the Liberate Technologies offices also have been vacant even though the lease runs to July 31, according to Jim Baer of Premier Properties of Palo Alto, which manages the building.

Baer said he has been involved with the building since 1986, when he was a part owner in a partnership called "300 University Avenue Association." The addresses for the building are 300 and 314 University for the ground floor and 310 for the second floor.

But the building was sold in 2003 to the current owners, he said. Baer said the structure "is a well-maintained building to the best standards," with attention to the electrical systems and air conditioning. The upstairs entries are securely locked with keypad magnetic locks, and there were strobe (smoke) alarms on the second floor.

There was a sprinkler system in the basement but not upstairs, he said.

He said early damage estimates of $2 million to $3 million were drastically low and that a more realistic damage range is $5 million to $7 million.

For the latest updates on the fire's aftermath, visit www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

Posted by sad person, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 8, 2007 at 7:25 am

I feel really sad about the whole thing. Can you believe that Walgreen's would actually burn up?


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