A sprinkler system for the partly empty Liberty Commons shopping area has been shut off for a month or longer, leaving patrons of several businesses and a driver’s license office without full protection from fire while the city was making plans to tear the center down and redevelop it.
The shopping center, southeast of Interstate 35 and Kansas Street, is anchored on one end by the B & B Cinema 12 and on the other by the empty shell of a former Kmart.
The non-functioning sprinkler system serves the middle part, which is retail space.
That space has a lot of vacancies, but is still occupied by a motor vehicle licensing station, a restaurant and dental office. A sports screen printing and sporting goods store has apparently moved but still has inventory in the center.
The sprinkler system problem was brought to light by Harry Boggess, retired Liberty fire captain. Boggess said he noticed the violation of fire safety code last month because he went there to look at the length of the grass alongside the center. Boggess said he’d received a citation for 6-inch-high grass on his own property, and was there to compare it to what he said was much longer grass at the center. (The center’s grass has since been cut.)
The valves that serve the theater and the former Kmart are open. The valve to the middle section, however, has been turned off and the chain that should be holding it in the open position has been cut.
Fire Chief Mike Snider confirmed the violation after he was made aware of it on Oct. 14. He said he has given the property owner, Sears Holdings of Hoffman Estates, Ill., 30 days to fix the problem. The system had not been repaired by last Thursday, and city officials could not provide an update this week.
The shopping center is the subject of a large redevelopment package making its way through Liberty City Hall. A city commission recently approved a public financing package for redevelopment of the 29-acre area into a six-pad, 240,000-square-foot commercial site.
RED Legacy plans to develop the project, which will cost an estimated $80 million. About $32.5 million of that would come from special taxing districts, which include tax increment financing. The project also would be financed from sales tax increases in the area for a Community Improvement District and Transportation Development District that come to a penny apiece. That would bring the sales tax in that area to 9.725 from the current rate of 7.725, said Karan Johnson, economic development manager for the city.
The financing issue will come before the City Council on Nov. 24, Johnson said. The project is slated for completion in 2016 or 2017.
If things go according to schedule, that means the current businesses will relocate in the spring of 2015, said Dave Claflin, spokesman for RED Legacy.
But that might happen earlier if Sears Holdings doesn’t fix the sprinkler system. Snider said if the issue isn’t resolved after 30 days, the city’s options include revoking business licenses in the center. The city also could issue a fine, he said.
“But in my 20 years, we’ve never made it that far,” he said. “Our goal is to get it fixed and we’re going to stay on top of it to make sure that they do,” he said.
Sears Holdings issued a brief emailed statement, saying, “We will work with the local fire department on this issue.”
Boggess, a 34-year veteran of the fire department, raised other questions about the inspection process at the center. He pointed to a recent Sunshine Law request he made of fire inspection records for the past three years, saying there’s no evidence that the sprinkler system has undergone the required yearly testing in that time.
Snider said the responsibility for testing sprinkler systems lies with the property owners, who usually hire a firm that is certified to do the work. The owners are supposed to provide local fire departments proof that the tests were done, which often is in the form of a card attached to the system itself, he said.
Snider said he is confident that the testing has been done and has been reported to someone in the fire department. But he has not personally seen the proof, and the department does not keep copies of the verification or record when that verification comes in.
Sears Holdings did not answer emailed questions about whether company officials had ordered the sprinklers turned off or whether they had regular sprinkler system tests.
Boggess said he has clashed with city officials on many points over the years, but is most concerned that the buildings remain safe.
“I have nothing personal to gain but public safety,” he said.
In a letter to city officials, Boggess pointed out that a fire sprinkler system recently saved the Crowley Furniture buildings from total loss.
“Despite whether city staff likes or dislikes me personally, fire safety is more important than personalities,” he said in the letter.