Engineering consultants reviewing a Downtown Madison building — which the city ordered closed last week due to structural concerns — had observed degrading conditions in the underground parking garage for years to the point that in July they warned of “significant risk and danger to occupants,” according to public records.
On Friday, two months after the warning, the Building Inspection Division issued a no occupancy order for the 12-story commercial building at 131 W. Wilson St., which is home to Paisan’s and several law offices, after tenants reportedly felt swaying and shaking inside the building that morning.
The city said the order was issued out of “an abundance of caution” as work is underway to shore up the structure. The 50-year-old building is not in danger of “imminent collapse,” according to the city.
On Aug. 27 — two weeks before the no occupancy order was issued — a structural engineering consultant for the property manager, Madison-based Executive Management Inc., emailed Building Inspection Division director Matt Tucker.
The email detailed Pierce Engineers’ involvement in monitoring the condition of the three-level parking garage underneath the building and outlined steps to shore up the degrading garage, which has been on the city’s radar for years.
“(Pierce) is concerned about the condition of the parking slab systems in the 131 building, and simply wishes to express the urgency of needed repairs and strategies to protect the safety and welfare of patrons to the building,” the company wrote to the city last month. “We would encourage further dialogue to better explain the serious nature of existing conditions and potential next steps for the parking levels.”
Conditions in the garage include broken and cracked concrete, exposed and deteriorated rebar, corroded steel and “expansion joints severely compromised,” according to Pierce.
A representative for Pierce, which has offices in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, declined to comment Tuesday, citing advice from the company’s attorney. Greg Rice, president and CEO of Executive Management and the registered agent for Rice Investors LLC, which is listed as the property owner for 131 W. Wilson St., declined to comment Wednesday.
The August email included four letters to Executive Management dating back to 2016 sent by either Pierce or a former consulting firm it acquired in 2017.
In a July 13 letter to Executive Management, Pierce recommended immediately vacating the parking garage and barricading entrances to prevent vehicles from entering based on observations from a walkthrough the day before. The consultant also recommended an immediate shoring of the garage.
“There is significant risk of partial/progressive collapse resulting in significant risk and danger to occupants,” the company wrote to Executive Management in July. “Please understand the severity of this situation and take appropriate steps to secure the safety and well-being of occupants.”
Executive Management retained Pierce to come up with a shoring plan on July 20. Pierce observed the garage had been “largely barricaded” by Aug. 18 and intended to lay out the shoring design by Aug. 27, according to the company’s email to the city. Tucker has said work on supporting the structure began earlier this month.
While shoring the garage, which involves installing thousands of temporary support posts, would return it to a safe condition, a permanent fix of the garage could cost three quarters of the cost of the entire building’s assessed value.
A 2016 structural condition study of the parking garage prepared by a former consulting firm estimated repairs to the garage and a plaza deck at $7.9 million. The city assessed the property in 2021 at $10.3 million.
Before the no occupancy order was issued, Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer said he had recently met with Executive Management about a plan from the company to redevelop the property “sooner rather than later.”
In an April 2018 letter, which was attached to Pierce’s email to the city, the company contacted Executive Management after acquiring the firm that conducted the 2016 study, offering its own recommendations for the parking garage based on the previous assessment.
The firm said repair work done on the garage around 1990 that increased overall slab thickness and a reduction of the original slab strength “greatly reduces” the capacity to support intended occupancy loads.
“Further, if allowed to continue to deteriorate, additional loss of structural integrity will accelerate and greatly increase the risk of localized failure of slab systems,” the company wrote.
At that time, Pierce said it “strongly recommends” repairs to the concrete slabs in the garage be “initiated immediately.” A timeline attached to the letters sent to the city indicates the 2018 letter was the last time Pierce was in contact with Executive Management until the July 12 site visit this year.
About two months before the April 2018 letter was sent, Building Inspection opened a case on the garage based on complaints about insulation falling apart, wires hanging from the ceiling, standing water, peeling paint and exposed rebar.
It was inspected in February 2018. A reinspection occurred in September 2019 and again in February 2020, after which Building Inspection referred the case to the City Attorney’s Office for prosecution in Municipal Court. According to a timeline of the case, though, the referral was not processed.
City Attorney Michael Haas, who started in his position in May 2020, said he doesn’t know why the request for prosecution wasn’t processed last year, adding the office’s prosecution team has been short-staffed and COVID-19 created delays as the court transitioned to an online setting.
After a July 1 inspection this year, Building Inspection again asked for prosecution. In mid-July — around the time Pierce was assessing the garage — the City Attorney’s Office filed a complaint in Municipal Court, alleging three counts of violating city ordinances.
The property owner entered a not guilty plea in August, Haas said, and a pretrial meeting scheduled for Wednesday was postponed.
The city regularly receives complaints about the condition of buildings about problems like broken windows, missing locks and other ordinance violations, Tucker said.
To gain compliance from property owners or tenants, he said, the city can first issue municipal citations. But if a situation isn’t remedied, Tucker said, it’s common for Building Inspection to ask the City Attorney’s Office to prosecute property owners or tenants, which can result in larger fines.
Haas said his office can receive up to three or four prosecution referrals a week from Building Inspection. The Municipal Court can only assess forfeitures for building violations, Haas said, but the city’s main goal is compliance.
It’s also common for the city to issue no occupancy orders, in such cases as buildings damaged in a fire or homes with no heat, Tucker said. But he said that during his 16 years working for the city’s Department of Planning, Community and Economic Development he doesn’t recall a closure as large as 131 W. Wilson St.
“I’m not aware of another time during my tenure here that we have closed down a building of this magnitude,” he said.