By CHRIS TISCH and AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published September 18, 2004
CLEARWATER - A downtown office building closed since Sept. 9 when an enormous water leak paralyzed its electrical system could reopen early next week.
The Atrium building, 601 Cleveland St., was damaged when work by unlicensed plumbers started an overnight leak that sent water seeping from room to room and floor to floor in the 10-story building.
Crews worked around the clock this week, replacing much of the building's electrical system. One of downtown's largest high-rises, the Atrium leased space to 28 businesses, which had a combined work force of about 250. All those businesses had to find temporary quarters this week.
Shelly Copeland of the Wilder Corp., the property's managers, said the target date for opening is Monday, but repair work must be approved by city building and fire inspectors. If problems are found, the building should be open by Wednesday at the latest, Copeland said.
"We're not worried about the public cosmetics stuff," said city development services director Jeff Kronschnabl. "But the life safety issues have to be met."
The leak occurred when a pipefitting on a sixth-floor toilet cracked days after it was installed by Ecotech, a Palm Harbor company that sells water-saving bathroom fixtures. The company faces a $500 fine and a possible criminal investigation because it is not a licensed plumbing contractor.
In addition to restoring the electrical system, crews also have replaced drywall and fire alarms.
Total repair costs were not available Friday, but the tab for just one part of the electrical system is more than $100,000, said Copeland.
"This is a property manager's worst nightmare," she said.
Frank Hibbard, a Clearwater City Council member who also works for investment firm Morgan Stanley, one of the building's displaced tenants, said repairs, as well as tenants' business losses, could top $1-million.
Another tenant, Aneco Electrical Construction, is in charge of electrical repairs, but company representatives would not discuss specifics.
As for finishing the plumbing work, Ecotech CEO Terry Janssen said work will be done by a licensed contractor.
"We'll be looking at every pipe, every last one of them on every fixture," Janssen said.
Neil Legters, a senior plans examiner with the city, said it might be impossible to determine whether the failed sixth-floor fitting was defective or improperly installed. Legters said it could have cracked because it was overtightened when fastened to a pipe.
"But the fact still remains (Janssen) and his group put them in," Legters said. "Why were they doing plumbing work without a permit?"
Janssen said his company has installed at least 15 water-saving toilet systems without incident. Ecotech distributes the system but is not licensed to install them. The company sometimes does installation work on smaller jobs, he said.
Under Florida law, it is a misdemeanor to perform plumbing work without a license a first time and a felony for subsequent offenses. But Copeland said she doesn't plan on filing a criminal complaint because Janssen has acknowledged the error.
"I really don't think that I would pursue that," Copeland said. "He's not dodged it. He's stepped up to the plate."
But Keith Parks, an investigations supervisor with the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services, said he may solicit a complaint from Wilder officials if one is not lodged by next week.
Meanwhile, the 28 affected businesses entered their second week without a home.
Michael Palandro, CEO of Bidville.com, said he doesn't think his online auction house will see a negative economic impact from the building's closure. Since last Thursday, Palandro's eight employees have been working from his Palm Harbor home.
"None of our area was damaged at all," said Palandro, whose office is on the ground floor. "Our Web site is hosted offsite. So basically, as long as we maintain the customer service and vendor discussions, our members have no idea that there's any problem."
Hibbard said his company will ask to be reimbursed for losses due to the closure. About 45 Morgan Stanley employees have had to work at other area branches.
"It's difficult for everybody," said Copeland, who has been working out of a temporary office across the street. "I appreciate everyone's patience."