Hollins St. building lacked fire inspection Recent renovations done without proper permits, city records show

November 17, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

The seven-story building that burned in Southwest Baltimore last week was renovated recently without a fire inspection to ensure fire precautions were taken.

No city records show that the owners of the Hollins Street Exchange obtained building or occupancy permits -- or had construction plans approved -- before beginning renovation of the building three years ago.

Consequently, building and fire inspectors never examined the building because they were unaware of its renovation, city officials said yesterday.

But one owner of the building, Alvin L. Blank, yesterday disputed the city's records, saying he did obtain a permit for the building.

"I deal with subcontractors who did what was appropriate," he said, but would not elaborate.

He would not say whether he recalled inspectors examining the construction work.

"You're talking about something that happened several years ago," he said.

The building, in the 2300 block of Hollins St., burned Nov. 9 in an 11-alarm fire that caused $3 million in damage. The fire started in a vacant building across the street and spread quickly through the blocklong Hollins Street Exchange.

Despite the failure to obtain permits, spokesmen for the city's fire and housing departments said their agencies see no reason to take legal action against the building's owners.

There is no way to tell now whether the building code was followed during construction, they said, because of severe damage to the structure during the fire.

The building, owned by partners Alvin L. and Cary N. Blank -- under the name Hollins Street Investment Associated Ltd. Partnership -- housed artists, musicians and other enterprises.

It was converted from a warehouse to loft-type apartments and studios about three years ago.

Sixth District City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes said he was surprised to learn of the lack of permits in the building.

"If we have a loophole in the system, let's go ahead and fix it to make sure it's not going to happen again," he said.

Building permits are required by the city's Department of Housing and Community Development for construction and renovation of all city buildings to ensure building and fire safety standards are met.

Zack Germroth, spokesman for the housing department, said city records show Alvin Blank applied for building permits twice in 1992, but never returned to city offices to pay for the permits, have his construction plans approved or arrange for inspectors to examine the renovation work.

Consequently, city officials voided his permit applications and threw away his construction plans, Mr. Germroth said.

City officials were unaware that Mr. Blank went ahead with conversion of the building without permits until after last week's fire.

"The city never took any responsibility for this in that we never issued a permit and we never went out there with him," Mr. Germroth said.

The city's building code sets strict requirements for the walls, ceilings and floors of apartment buildings to be constructed with materials that would slow the spread of fire between apartments and between apartments and public hallways. The code also requires fire escapes.

If Mr. Blank had obtained his permit, the Fire Department would have checked the building for working sprinkler systems and adequate smoke alarms.

Mr. Germroth said city records show there was a sprinkler system in the building before the renovation, but officials do not know if it was operating at the time of the fire.

Fire Department spokesman Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres called the failure of the owner to obtain permits "a breakdown in the system."

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