Patten Towers fire reveals a mess in need of repairs

Patten Towers fire reveals a mess in need of repairs

June 1st, 2013 in Opinion Times

Relocated Patten Towers residents settle in at the Brainerd Recreation Complex being operated by the Red Cross after an electrical fire Tuesday night forced 241 residents to be evacuated.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Patten Towers may finally be getting the attention it should have had years ago.

It took a large fire in the basement that decimated the 1906 building's electrical switch-box, which apparently had not been updated enough in recent decades to handle ordinary appliances such as microwaves and coffee makers.

And it took a pressing need to find long-term shelter for the 241 residents who were evacuated Tuesday night from the 11-story federally subsidized hotel-turned-apartment-building.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and the facilities manager of PK Management, Patten Towers' owner, said Friday that fire repairs will take six to eight more weeks.

"It's a 100-year old building," said PK Management Facilities Director Joe Conti. "We may need to get more power to the building."

PK Management has owned the building less than a year, but in that time it has installed a new air conditioning tower, as well as more efficient windows, he said.

In the meantime, the company, which specializes in Section 8 affordable housing properties and low-income housing tax credit properties nationwide, will have 10 social workers here this weekend to work with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to find long-term housing solutions for the now-homeless residents.

Now, new problems have emerged for the future of the building, a linchpin of the city's history.

Late Friday, the city finally released records indicating careless maintenance may have compromised the integrity of some of the basement's concrete columns, exposing structural steel. What's still not clear is what effect the high temperatures, like those that occurred during the electrical fire, might have had on the exposed steel.

The record also indicates main electrical switches have been improperly altered and must be replaced, a lengthy exercise that requires a custom-built piece of equipment.

Additionally, the building is improperly ventilated, and room ducts are filled with dirt and rodent feces. Three boilers were installed with no record of a permit, fire equipment has been altered without a permit or inspection, and many emergency power circuits aren't working.

Scary stuff -- even before the fire.

Questions still unanswered after the fire include:

• Why these problems had existed for years but were not acted on by either city or HUD code inspectors.

• Will Berke or the city council seek refunds of the $622,200 in 1,174 fire calls -- mostly false alarms -- over the past three and a half years from either PK or the previous owner, another management company?

• Will PK Management pony up reimbursement or at least a donation for the Salvation Army which by midday Friday had served more than 2,100 meals and 4,500 drinks to the evacuees? And will the company reimburse or make a donation to the Red Cross which continued at least through Friday to shelter 117 residents?

• And why did Berke's office delay a public records request from the newspaper earlier this week about Chattanooga Fire Department's inspection reports for the facility and firefighter call records for the facility? The documents detailing the structural questions and filth were released after 5 p.m. on Friday.

Berke opened a news conference on Friday morning to say the city is working with the building owner and with social service agencies. But he didn't offer specifics. The day before, his office stopped fire officials from releasing public records about the building's condition and the previous fire calls there.

This doesn't jibe with his campaign calls for "accountability" and "transparency."

On Thursday, fire officials in a telephone conversation with Times Free Press reporter Ellis Smith said they were looking at inspection sheets in a computer as they talked with him. They said they would send them as soon as they had approval from the mayor's office.

Several hours later, they said they could not release the records.

There's no reasonable explanation for such a lack of responsiveness. These are public records about a taxpayer-subsidized building for low-income elderly and disabled residents who have been sleeping on cots for a week.

These people deserve better. So do taxpayers.