Note: This story was last updated at 12:55 p.m. Nov. 14.
Despite a plea for another extension, a city board on Thursday ordered that a commercial building on East Tyrone Road be demolished within 30 days. The demolition order does not apply to the popular Magic Wok restaurant, which is in a separate diner on the western side of the building.
The Oak Ridge Board of Building and Housing Code Appeals had previously given the building owners more time to develop a repair or demolition plan, including a five-month extension in June. At Thursday’s meeting, board members suggested they hadn’t seen enough work take place since then.
“I’m seeing very little progress,” said board member Joe Lee, who made the motion to demolish within 30 days, which is what the city staff had requested. “This has been an ongoing issue for a decade or more.”
The city staff said the partially occupied commercial structure has been declared unfit for human occupation or use because of code violations, and a demolition deadline expired Thursday. The staff said the estimated cost of repairs exceeds 50 percent of the building’s value, which is an important benchmark for issuing a demolition order. The staff has said the building is in a state of disrepair, lacks adequate fire and panic exits, and the roof and interior have not been adequately maintained for several years.
The motion to demolish the building at 123 and 135 East Tyrone Road was approved in a 6-0 vote on Thursday. Voting in favor of that motion were Chair Bruce LeForce, Vice Chair Philip Nipper, Secretary Amy Seiber, Lee, and board members Phil Yager and Leonar Vaughen. Board member Aaron Wells was not present.
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson, who has followed the case, told the board that, after several meetings to discuss the property, it was time to make a decision.
“We’re spending significant staff resources coming back on this time and time again,” Watson said. “We’ve got other projects out there that we’re going to be dealing with.”
The two cases against the building, which is just north of Oak Ridge Turnpike near Jackson Square, exclude the manufactured structure that houses the Magic Wok, but they do include the areas in the small shopping center that have recently housed a dry cleaner, thrift store, wig shop, Mexican grocery, and the Magic Wok’s food preparation and overflow dining areas.
The city staff said concerns about the building stretch back in some form for more than a decade.
“This had been going on for years now,” said Kathryn Baldwin, Oak Ridge Community Development director. She cited a sprinkler system problem 10 years ago. The city employees then might not have followed through, Baldwin said.
“That will not be the case this time,” she said. The staff will pursue court action if the board’s dates are not met, Baldwin said.
The building owners suggested they were still trying to determine whether to sell the mostly-empty building, or demolish 80 percent of it and save about 5,500 square feet in three units on the western side of the property, among two options. They asked for one more 30-day extension.
“We are not trying to delay,” said Jim Wang, one of the owners. (His wife Betty owns the Magic Wok.) “Approve our plan, and then we will start to work.”
But the city staff suggested the discussions have been circular, “starting from scratch” at every board meeting.
“I feel like this is the same discussion every time we meet,” Baldwin said.
Wang said the group of owners have spent several thousand dollars in the past few months on survey work and developing a detailed site plan, and they have $150,000 available for the planned work, including demolition, asbestos removal, bringing the electrical system in the remaining part of the building up to code, and building restrooms compliant with the American with Disabilities Act. They wanted another month to get a demolition permit and contract, and remove asbestos—and allow Magic Wok to stay in business a few more months, said Wang, who added that age is “catching up” with him and his wife.
The municipal staff said they wanted some definite dates, and if those weren’t met, penalties should be outlined. The staff said they had just received the demolition plan the previous Friday.
During the last meeting earlier this year, the agreement was that the building—which once housed The Oak Ridger newspaper, among other businesses—would be partially demolished by this month, with permits in hand and “build-outs” for the remaining portion by December, said Matt Widner, Oak Ridge Community Development housing specialist.
“We need to put an actual hard timeline down,” Widner said. “This (current case) has been going on for almost two years.”
But Noel Peterson, owner of Coal Creek Surveying and Engineering of Lake City, which has been helping the building’s owners, pointed out that there are no occupants left in the building.
“What’s the hurry?” he asked. “I don’t see why it needs to come down in the next 30 days.”
He said the owners aren’t that far behind schedule, and he thinks work could start in the next month or two.
After the meeting, Wang said it wasn’t clear what the next step would be for the property owners.
More information will be added as it becomes available.