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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Starwood-Ceruzzi Acting As "Slumlords," Says Barrett

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, February 28, 2006

North Adams Mayor John Barrett III during a Feb. 27 media conference at City Hall.
North Adams - After weeks of city patience and unfulfilled property owner promises, city inspectors had no choice but to close Gringo's restaurant and the North Adams Cinema Six movie theater on Feb.24, said Mayor John Barrett III during a Feb. 27 media conference.
Both businesses are housed at a Curran Highway strip mall owned by the Starwood-Ceruzzi development firm of Fairfield, Conn..

Significant Violations Charged

Exposed wires, a damaged and leaking roof, a widespread, significant mold and mildew problem, crumbling exterior walls and other issues led to the decision, said Barrett and acting Health Inspector Manuel Serrano, Building Inspector William Meranti and Wiring Inspector Stephen Meranti.

The mold and mildew presence is among the most serious situations, said Serrano.

"Mold is serious, very, very serious," he said. "Mold is considered as the new asbestos."

Re-Opening Option


Damaged, crumbling exterior walls are among the problems at a Starwood-Ceruzzi owned Curran Highway strip mall.
Barrett showed interior photographs of the building, which gave evidence of deterioration, damage, and an odd-looking device that relies on hose sections to direct water leaking from the roof away from the interior of the movie theater.

The businesses could reopen by week's end, if work to abate the violations were to begin at a significant level, Barrett said.

"If repair work were to begin, and mold abatement were to begin, they could be open by the end of the week," he said.

Barrett took issue with remarks made on Feb. 24 by Gringo's owner David Nicholas, who alleged that he'd had no warning of an impending business close. The restaurant had been scheduled to host a Massachusetts College Of Liberal Arts event that evening, Nicholas has said.

Problems Documented, Business Owners Aware, Said Barrett

But yesterday, Barrett said that Nicholas was aware that the businesses were in jeopardy because of the building's condition and conditions inside the restaurant. The cinema owners also knew that there were serious problems within that facility, he said.

"We have documents that date back to December that indicate that we might have to close them down unless we see some improvements," Barrett said.

Barrett and Serrano said that the restaurant was cited for health and building code violations during an inspection last week. The violations included improper storage of food, exposed wires, using an extension cord instead of approved wiring, missing ceiling tiles, and other infractions.

And Nicholas himself, during an interview with local newspapers, identified a number of violations that have existed for years, Barrett said.

"So yes, the city, in it's 'infinite wisdom,' closed this place down and it will remain closed until significant improvements are made," Barrett said.

Late-Night Emergency Meeting

An on-premises emergency meeting was held on Dec. 30 with city inspectors and Starwood-Ceruzzi representatives gathered at the Curran Highway plaza at 10:30 p.m., Barrett said.

Damaged walls and falling debris compromise the safety of a high-voltage electrical transformer, according to city building, health, and wiring inspectors.


City inspectors confirmed yesterday that they had wanted to shut down the restaurant and the theater at that time for various code violations. Ultimately, they did not take the action because of the likely financial consequences to both businesses and assurances that improvements would be forthcoming.

The Starwood-Ceruzzi firm did begin work on the building after the meeting but some of the work appeared to be "cob jobs," Barrett said.

The roof wasn't fully repaired but was patched in places and the patches haven't stopped all the leaks, William Meranti said. At the building's rear, brick-faced concrete blocks have fallen down and left gaping holes, and the debris has compromised the safety of a high-voltage electrical transformer, said Stephen Meranti.

Fabric Shop Remains Open

The Berkshire Fabric and Wallpaper store was not closed on Friday.

City inspectors said during the media conference that the space occupied by the store was less impacted by violations and also said that the business owners displayed a cooperative attitude and have already hired an electrical contractor to make repairs at the store.

The business owners began working immediately to bring the space into city building, electrical, and health code compliance, the inspectors said.

"Slumlord"

Starwood-Ceruzzi was termed as a "slumlord" during the conference.

"When you spend $2.5 million to buy a property, you should at least protect the safety of the people using the building," Barrett said. "They are a slumlord in the city right now. If they are going to come in and fix it up, I advise them to do it right, otherwise, sell it and move on."

Starwood-Ceruzzi purchased the site from former owner Michael Meehan in May 2004. Company officials have made little public comment about the plans for the site.

Gringo's Fate Uncertain

Speaking after the media conference, Nicholas said that he does not disagree that the building needs significant work.

"What I don't get is the city eating its' own," he said of the Friday closing.

Nicholas reiterated that the order to shut down came at 4 p.m., just hours before a scheduled MCLA event. The event was ultimately shifted to the Bounti-Fare restaurant in Adams, which Nicholas also owns.

The fate of Gringo's is up in the air, as is the fate of the eatery's about 20 mostly part-time employees, Nicholas said.

"These people showed up to work on Friday and right now, they don't have jobs," he said, and added that the workers can't be absorbed into the Bounti-Fare workforce. "We don't need any staff [at the Bounti-fare]."

Nicholas acknowledged that he is responsible for several of the restaurant violations, such as replacing a broken window, using the extension cord, and the missing ceiling tiles. But the exposed wires have existed for several years, have been observed during past city inspections, and have been identified by Nicholas to inspectors as "dead wires," he said.

"I'm not mad that they closed us down, I'm mad at they way they closed us," Nicholas said. "They could have said, back in December, 'Ok, let's just make it [a closing date] March 1."

Nicholas has been working without a property lease for months and said that he isn't inclined to make expensive repairs to the restaurant premises under those circumstances. He has no relocation site for the restaurant, he said, and added that he is seriously considering ceasing monthly rent payments to Starwood-Ceruzzi.

"We all knew something would happen," he said. "We all expected to be kicked out. But we expected to be kicked out by the landlord, not the city."

Time For Some Action

Barrett said that the safety and health of the city's citizens are a priority and the businesses and the property owner have had ample time to make genuine improvements. Movie theater owners asked to remain open and promised to put any monies made over the weekend into building repairs, but the offer was too little, too late, Barrett said.

"Why didn't they do that the previous weekend," he said.

Had either business attempted to defy the city order and open their doors, city officials did have the authority to have electrical service to the building cut off, Serrano said.

Barrett said the city extended all the patience and courtesy that it could to the property owner and the business owners, and the generosity is at an end. The property owner needs to decide what to do with the site and get to it, he said.

"If they overpaid for it, that is their problem," he said. "Get out of it and move on. Clean it up, dry it up, and then decide what they are going to do with it."

The city hasn't been shy about its' intention to have the site brought up to code standards, he said.

"There are no communication problems here," he said. "What part of a written [code compliance] order do you not understand? Code is a minimum standard; they can't even meet a minimum standard and we would expect them to do better than minimum."

"These developers come in and some of them seem to think that can take advantage of the city, that we just fell off the turnip truck," he said. "We won't tolerate it. The City of North Adams did not close the place down; in action, the property owner and the business owners closed this down. All we did was enforce the law, and we should have enforced it sooner."

The city did not want to create hardships for business owners, and tried numerous times to work cooperatively with the business and property owners, Barrett said.

The results of that effort are obvious, he said.

"No good deed goes unpunished."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or 802-823-9367.

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