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Erik Burgess, Published September 14 2013

City orders elevators fixed at historic Black Building

FARGO – After trudging up 111 steps to reach her business earlier this summer, Gail Nelson had finally had enough.

Nelson’s Journey Counseling used to be on the sixth floor of the historic Black Building at 118 Broadway. That’s until the elevators broke down in July and her clients were forced to use the hulking freight elevator in back. Nelson moved out.

When the passenger elevators broke down again last week, the city also took notice. City inspectors gave the building’s owners until Sept. 23 to fix the elevators or face possible litigation in municipal court.

Co-owners Lloyd Sampson and Todd Nedberg said they’ve been working on the passenger elevators for months and at least one of the two elevators will be fixed by the deadline.

But according to numerous current and former tenants at the Black Building, the issues there don’t end with grounded elevators. They claim heating, cooling and communication with ownership have all been concerns at the eight-story, 83-year-old downtown building that once served as Fargo’s retail hub.

The North Dakota Insurance Department warned the owners of the Black Building this spring if their leaking boiler isn’t replaced with a new one by around October, it will be decertified and condemned.

Nelson said she left because of the issues that never seem to be fixed. At least two other tenants told The Forum they are considering following suit and moving out.

“Lloyd can say that it’s not an issue, and obviously for him it’s not,” Nelson said. “But for me, absolutely that was the issue. It was unprofessional to drag my customers up in a freight elevator.”

Several tenants said one thing keeps them there: cheap rent. There’s also the tradition of wanting to stay in the historic space.

Building owners dispute claims of the heating and cooling being insufficient and said the boiler will be fixed this month.

“We’ve kept the building up. We’ve done, I think, a good job. This is an unusual situation for us,” Sampson said, referring to the city’s order to fix the elevators.

Sampson and Nedberg argue most tenants have few, if any, issues with the building’s conditions.

“There’s always going to be a turnover,” Nedberg said. “People move. Things change. I can assure you we don’t have any more inordinate amount of people moving out of the building today than we did a year ago or 10 years ago.”

The owners said they have about 80 tenants and a “very, very high” occupancy rate, but they wouldn’t share the exact rate.

Lynn Wolff, who worked on the 8th floor for 12 years at Dakota Resource Council and now volunteers there, said he has seen some long-time neighbors head for the doors in recent years.

“I would venture we have lost a number of the tenants over the past five years,” Wolff said. “I don’t know if we’ve gained too many.”

Broken elevators, boiler

Nedberg said at least one of the elevators will be fixed within a matter of days, meeting the city’s requirements. They plan to temporarily fix the left car while fully upgrading the right car. When the right car is complete, the left car will be upgraded.

The elevators’ age and historic nature make them more costly to repair, Nedberg said. He said the price tag is more than $250,000.

Sampson said the elevator’s computer system is from 1988 and needs replacing. He said he started to fix the elevators in March but negotiating for parts has taken a long time. Sampson said he is sensitive to the tenants’ concerns about the elevator, especially those on the upper floors.

“I’ve been wanting to get this done for quite a while,” Sampson said. “I have no doubts that it should’ve been done a while ago.”

In the official notice from the city, Housing Inspector John Mrozla cites the International Property Maintenance Code, which states that buildings equipped with passenger elevators must have at least one operational car when the building is occupied.

Sampson said the building has had at least one elevator running at all times, even if it’s the freight elevator, which is operated by an attendant and only runs during business hours.

Mrozla told The Forum on Wednesday neither the passenger elevators nor the freight elevator was working. The freight car was working again Thursday, but the passenger cars were not.

Broken elevators have been an issue for the building at least over the past five years, Wolff said.

For a few days this summer, all three elevators were out at the same time, which has happened once or twice before, Wolff said. Someone contacted city inspectors July 29 to inform them that the elevators were broken, but by the time the city went to inspect, they were functioning again.

“And now it isn’t working again,” said Inspection Administrator Ron Strand. “It’s a pretty big deal. I don’t know how the hell I would ever make it up eight stories or nine stories to make it some place.”

City Planning Director Jim Gilmour said it could also be an issue with the American Disabilities Act.

“All employers have to have accessible work environments and have a way to be accessible to customers and the people they serve,” Gilmour said.

The state was alerted to the poor condition of the building’s boiler in February after a maintenance worker had an accident, said Deputy Boiler Inspector Nicolle Fowler.

Fowler inspected and found that the 43-year-old boiler was leaking, so she sent the owners a letter telling them to replace it. In March, when she re-inspected, the owners gave her a “song and dance” about why it wasn’t done yet, Fowler said.

But she decided the 60 days it takes to decertify a boiler would take them into the warmer months, so she gave them the summer to fix it. The state is now requiring it be replaced by about October.

“We can actually condemn the boiler, if it would come to that point … but hopefully it won’t come to that,” Fowler said.

Sampson said the new boiler is in town and will be installed this month.

‘Lack of communication’

A Forum reporter who surveyed current tenants in the Black Building’s tower over the course of two days last week found that eight tenants from the fourth floor up to the eighth floor said they were concerned with the building’s condition. The tenants wished to remain anonymous so as to not interfere with their lease.

Many of those tenants said the broken elevators hurt their business or made the building feel unsafe. They complained of other longstanding issues with the building’s heating and cooling, and said there’s been general miscommunication from the management.

One tenant said the thermostat in her office sometimes hits 90 degrees in the summer. That tenant and two others said they personally bought air conditioning units for their suites because the building’s cooling system is inadequate.

But two other tenants who also didn’t wish to be named said they didn’t have any problems with management. Wolff said he expects some issues when working in an old building.

“It’s a big job, and the job is possibly bigger than the staff that’s available to do it,” Wolff said.

Sampson agreed that an older system is tougher to maintain, and he said the cooling system has failed in the past but not once this year. He pointed out that heating and cooling only run during 9-to-5 weekday business hours, and tenants should know that.

When it comes to other maintenance issues, Sampson said if management is made aware of a problem, it will be fixed.

“Some people aren’t ever happy,” he said. “I’m sorry to say something like that, but some people you just can’t make happy. It’s an old building. We do provide that stuff.”

“We fix everything,” Sampson added. “There’s not a case where we don’t fix stuff.”

Wolff said he’s enjoyed working in the Black Building, but the “most aggravating part,” he said, is the miscommunication from management.

“Give us the best information you can so that we have the right story, not the hearsay story,” he said.

Nelson said it’s a total “lack of communication.”

“You just hear different things, and we’d never get any confirmation from the landlord to put out better information, so we just ended up with a lot of bad information,” Nelson said.

Sampson said he and the building’s manager are always available by phone, and he welcomes calls from tenants with issues.

“I’m over at the building every day,” Sampson said. “I’m not hiding from anyone. I’m not embarrassed by the (elevator issue) at all. It’s just literally more complicated than a person would imagine.”

Building an ‘old ghost’

Pam Kinslow also moved out of the Black Building recently but not because of maintenance issues. The owner of Violet Vintage was on the building’s skyway level for about a year but wanted more storefront visibility, so she moved to 1 1/2 8th St. S.

Still, Kinslow said the building as it is today does not match her fond childhood memories.

“If anything, it should be restored and brought back to its original glory as the longstanding, old Black Building,” she said. “It’s kind of become the old ghost, in a way.”

Gilmour said the building could be a prime candidate for the city’s Renaissance Zone tax exemption program, but Nedberg said the program has never made financial sense for them.

To qualify for the Renaissance Zone, the owners would need to put about $2 million into the building, Gilmour said.

Nedberg said he might now consider it, given the expensive elevator repairs.

Gilmour said that while the owners have made “some minor improvements to the storefront,” they’ve not gone above and beyond like some other projects in the burgeoning downtown.

“We’ve seen a lot of people in large buildings make significant investments to keep the heating system going, the elevators, all that, kind of the non-glamorous part,” he said. “If they don’t have the resources to do that, perhaps they should sell it to someone who does.”

Sampson and Nedberg both said they aren’t “actively” looking to sell.

“Our priority is to make the building work and get it back to where it has been, where things are running normal,” Sampson said.

Nelson said she enjoyed her time in the old building, but she’s glad she’s out.

“It really could be something amazing,” she said, adding she hopes it gets “the love and attention that it deserves, because it’s a great building.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518