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Deterioration, safety concerns triggered expanded demolition of North Fire Station

Our Town with William Kelly: Deterioration, safety concerns triggered expanded demolition of North Fire Station

The town’s North Fire Station was found to be so deteriorated that a contractor refused to allow its renovation crew into parts of the building because of safety concerns, a town official said earlier this month.

Neither the town nor the project architect, Mark Marsh, initially anticipated the extent of demolition that would be required to fully renovate the 96-year-old fire station, Wayne Bergman, Palm Beach’s zoning director and building official, told the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Aug. 16.

Bergman, Public Works Director Paul Brazil, and members of the project team appeared before the commission to explain why the scope of demolition has exceeded the level approved by the panel in the “Certificate of Appropriateness” it awarded for the project in July 2022.

Bergman said Marsh told town staff that, when the renovation began last year, the contractor, Hedrick Brothers Construction, would not allow its employees into parts of the station because the building’s tower and roof were unsafe.

Bergman said preservation is always important with historic landmarks, but that safety ultimately must come first. He acted accordingly.

“As the town building official and from a safety standpoint, I allowed portions of the roof to be removed, understanding they would be replaced in the same location, at the same height, at the same plane, as they were at the start of the project,” Bergman said.

Reconstruction began in August 2022 on the three-story fire station, which was built in 1927 and is one of the oldest still-operational firehouses in the state. It was landmarked in 1988.

In addition to the roof and tower, town officials have said the station’s interior walls and foundation must be replaced as part of the $17 million renovation, due for completion next year.

In the meantime, a temporary station is operating next to the old one and serving the same emergency response zone, from Royal Poinciana Way to the northern tip of the island.

Marsh, president of Palm Beach-based Bridges, Marsh & Associates, the architectural firm for the fire station renovation, said Hedrick Brothers uncovered extensive deterioration and structural deficiencies that were deemed hazardous to human safety.

“There are some other buildings in town that are historical but not as critical for life safety,” Marsh said of the fire station.

David Carmo, of Lantana-based Carmo Engineering Associates, the project’s structural engineer, said the North Fire Station is among the three most severely deteriorated buildings out of more than 60 landmarked structures with which he has been professionally involved.

“If a half-decent hurricane came through here, it would blow the roof off,” Carmo said.

In its first 60 years, the station settled six inches to the south. A 1980s renovation amounted to “some minor Band-Aid repairs,” he said. “They only did the bare minimum.”

Carmo presented photos revealing corroded steel beams, rusted steel rebar, stress cracks in the walls, sagging rafters, rotting and termite-damaged lumber, and deteriorated clay-tile columns in the interior walls.

The building’s windows do not even approach today’s standards for wind resistance, he said.

“The roof, to me, was probably the most important thing to fix,” Carmo said. “It was overstressed and under-designed and it didn’t come close to meeting any kind of wind requirements we would have today. We’re replacing the majority of it with a new roof that will basically be up to code.”

Bergman said the reality is that, in many cases, the construction of old buildings is inadequate.

“Storms, exposure to salt, exposure to water, even insects – all of these quicken the decay and deterioration of concrete, steel and lumber,” Bergman said. “We live in the land of hurricanes and rising sea levels. FEMA and the Florida Building Code required heightened levels of new construction, even for older buildings.”

The North Fire Station is a Design Class 4 commercial building, meaning the public relies upon it for emergency response and recovery, Bergman said.

“Every permit and certificate of occupancy issued by the town has my name and my state license associated with it,” he said.

Fire Chief Darrel Donatto said he appreciated the effort of Bergman, Brazil and Marsh to make sure the reconstructed fire station will be safe for the men and women who work there.

Donatto recalled standing in the southeast corner of the station during Hurricane Wilma in 2005. “The whole wall was moving several inches,” he said.

Marsh said the project team will preserve some of the old building’s ornamentation. But some of it has been damaged and will have to be duplicated.

“We will replicate this building, historically, piece by piece,” he said. “That’s a commitment by this group.”

Aimee Sunny, director of education for the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation, said the deterioration should have been presented to the commission as soon as it was discovered.

The town code outlines a process if emergency conditions are determined to be dangerous to life, health or property, Sunny said.

“It states that, in the case of demolition, prior notice of such action shall be given to the commission,” she said. “This did not occur. We hope that any additional deviation from the Certificate of Appropriateness will be returned to this commission for its approval.”

Marsh said the project team “had no intention of being disingenuous” about the demolition.

Brazil offered an apology to the commissioners.

“When we knew the demolition was going to be more than what anybody anticipated – and that came when we started opening up the walls – I made sure the Town Council had a chance to tour [the station] … I didn’t do that for this commission, and I apologize.”

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