Water-line break puts artists on the street

Building uninhabitable after 17 hours of flooding

electricity, heat shut off

Redevelopment had been planned

January 27, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Frigid water from a burst pipe in one of Baltimore's historic buildings gushed onto West Baltimore Street for 17 hours - displacing artists, closing businesses and turning the sidewalk into a frozen mess - before the city's Department of Public Works finally found the shutoff valve yesterday afternoon.

"We're going to have to find another place to live, which is not going to be easy," said Morgan Monceaux, a multimedia artist who moved into the 125-year-old building three months ago with his assistant.

"I tied up all my finances in coming here [from Rhode Island]. This was it until I can recoup my funds," Monceaux said.

About a dozen artists live in the warehouselike Abell building, which was built in 1878 by The Sun's founder, A.S. Abell, at West Baltimore and Eutaw streets. They picked it, many said, because the rent is cheap (about $1,000 a month for 10,000 square feet) and the space perfect for studio work and public showings.

But the water damage might keep them from returning.

The Baltimore Fire Department shut off the electricity and heat when the pipe exploded about 7 p.m. Saturday, and until the damage can be cleaned up and the area restored, no one can occupy the building.

"I don't know what we're going to do," said painter Jeffrey Kent, who is being put up at a city hotel by the Red Cross' Emergency Services Department. "We need studio space; apartments don't work."

At noon yesterday, as the powerful stream finally slowed to a trickle, residents surveyed the damage.

The first floor was covered in a foot of water. A bread maker sat half-submerged on the tile floor. A wicker basket lid floated nearby, next to a red balloon and a vintage-looking purse.

The ceiling was falling in, and the glass entrance doors smashed to allow the water to flow into the street - a precautionary measure taken to keep the floor from caving under the water's weight.

The basement, where Monceaux was storing his Honda Shadow motorcycle, was completely flooded.

"There are three dozen active water main breaks right now and hundreds of frozen lines to people's houses," said Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. "It's that time of year."

Although the pipe was on private property and not Baltimore's responsibility, the city stepped in and searched through blueprints to find the valve location.

Kocher said it is likely the pipe burst because it froze.

It is the latest in a series of troubles for 333 W. Baltimore St.

In October, the city told Michael Abrams, whose family owns the six-story building, that it would be condemned unless Abrams began redeveloping it immediately.

Abrams said yesterday that he is doing that right now, planning to turn the structure into apartment housing and commercial space.

"We are going through our code review and will be submitting plans in the very near future," Abrams said. "We anticipate starting sometime in the spring."

That means the artists' time there was already limited.

Abrams said their eviction is "imminent," but this latest event may have made it immediate.

"It's effectively given us our walking papers," Kent said.

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