ELKHART — A weekend blaze at the old Walter Piano building on Beardsley Avenue might have sparked additional interest in seeing the structure torn down, but city officials say they’re moving as fast as possible.
However, the person who handles brownfield sites for the city predicted it could be torn down by the end of September.
The building at the corner of Beardsley Avenue and North Michigan Street caught fire about 6 a.m. Sunday during a large thunderstorm and officials suspect the cause was a lightning strike.
A large portion of the building’s roof collapsed during the fire.
The dilapidated building has been empty for several years and has been in a state of distress for about 20 years, according to 2nd District city councilman Brian Thomas, whose district includes the property.
Much of the building has a temporary fence around the perimeter. An old sign outside warns that the property is considered dangerous.
On Monday, city workers added additional fencing to further secure the site, said Tony Balzano, chief inspector and investigator for the Elkhart Fire Department.
“We’ve been worried about the safety of the building for a few years now,” Balzano said.
“Obviously, with it having caught on fire, I’d say that it does pose more of a hazard than it did before,” he said.
Aside from additional fencing, though, he said there is little more they can do.
That’s because the city does not own the property yet. But that could change possibly as soon as six weeks, said Dennis Correll, Brownfield coordinator for the city.
The existing owner owed about $61,000 in back taxes and has informed the city he has no intentions of paying the taxes and is ready to give up property rights, Correll said.
The city is now waiting for a court to finish the legal process before the property is legally handed over to the city, Correll said.
In the meantime, the city is taking preliminary steps toward demolition. That involves hiring a consultant who would then prepare plans for the city to seek bids to have a demolition company take down the building.
Since the city does not currently own the building, officials have not been able to conduct environmental assessment of the property, which could potentially slow down the process, Correll said.
Correll said the city has money remaining from previous demolition projects to use for the Beardsley Avenue project.
Correll gave the city council an update on the building Monday night.
“I’m confident with the time schedule we have,” Thomas said following Monday’s council meeting.
Balzano said the fire remains under investigation, but he suspects it started from a lightning strike. He said several people who were interviewed reported hearing what could have been a lightning strike.
Anna Head, who lives at 620 W. Crawford St., east of the building, said she heard what she thought were two claps of thunder and then a sound that she believes was the roof collapsing.
Head said she worries about the condition of the building and hopes the city does something soon.
She said she would prefer to see the land turned into a park.
That might happen, but only temporarily.
Correll said the property would be converted to “green space” after demolition, but eventually the city hopes to see it be developed for some kind of business use.