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Wrecking crews last week tore off the front of a 107-year-old downtown building, leaving an Internet sweepstakes parlor exposed and a major eyesore in a busy section of Wilmington Street.
City inspectors and the property owner say a crumbling wall left them no choice but to tear out the historic facade that stood at Wilmington and Martin streets since 1905.
Deputy inspections director Curt Willis said another Raleigh inspector noticed cracks forming while walking by on his lunch break. Engineers initially hoped to stabilize and repair the building. A second inspection proved the situation was more dire with the masonry failing fast, he said.
“The structural engineers said it was too unsafe for even the workers to go in the building,” Willis said. “When there’s a question mark about what a building’s performance is going to do ... safety of the public comes first. Everyone felt like it was the right decision.”
The building is owned by an investor group led by Cary developer Gregg Sandreuter. He lauded the city for moving quickly to assist with the demolition, which took place Monday.
While the building is now unsightly, Sandreuter said it is stable and safe. “Now we’re taking some time – not months but days – to figure out our next steps,” he said.
Options include taking down the remainder of the building or rehabbing it. “We’re going to get it fixed one way or another,” Sandreuter said.
The sudden demolition displaced three businesses: the sweepstakes cafe, a check-cashing business and David Beasley’s AAA Bail Bonding. Beasley said he has been unable to access important papers and computers and has been running his business out of his house.
“(The landlord) called me at 2 in the afternoon and told us we had two hours before they were going to close it,” Beasley said. “It’s been a real burden on us and our customers.”
While Sandreuter could rebuild the front of the building, it would be difficult to replicate the original facade. The storefront entrances weren’t original, but the second floor had tall, distinctive windows.
J. Myrick Howard, director of Preservation North Carolina, said it’s important to save historic downtown buildings when possible.
“I think the buildings give downtowns like Raleigh a whole lot of variety and appeal because you see how it’s grown over time,” he said. “It gives you a variety and authenticity that you don’t see when you have the faux downtown developments.”
Howard stressed that most of downtown’s buildings aren’t in danger of a similar fate. “Downtown Raleigh is in immensely better shape than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “We really haven’t lost all that much in the last 20 years.”
Preservation architects recommend checking older buildings at least once a year for signs the facade might be separating from the rest of the building. Leaky roofs can cause masonry damage. The buildings aren’t required to have routine inspections, though Willis said inspectors did a “cursory check” of downtown structures after last year’s earthquake.
Property owners in much of downtown Raleigh are restricted from making dramatic changes to historic buildings. Upgrades and demolitions in several historic districts require a certificate of appropriateness from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission. But the Wilmington Street building sits just outside the Moore Square Historic District, according to RHDC preservation planner Tanya Tully. No such rules apply to demolitions on the block.
The property is eventually expected to be part of Edison, a mixed-use project slated to encompass most of the downtown block bounded by Blount, Davie, Wilmington and Martin streets.
Sandreuter had originally planned to build two office towers on the Edison property, but the project has since been revised.
Edison’s first phase is now expected to be SkyHouse Raleigh, a 320-unit apartment high-rise that would be built on the southwest corner of Martin and Blount streets. Sandreuter’s firm, Beacon Partners, has partnered with Novare Group, an Atlanta developer, on the project, which is still seeking financing.
Staff writer David Bracken contributed to this report.