PORTLAND — The owner of a multi-story building in the city’s Old Port district that was heavily damaged in a three-alarm fire early Thursday morning had been cited for numerous fire safety violations dating back to April. The violations were never addressed.
Inspections were conducted at 416 Fore St. and an adjacent building at 420 Fore St. on April 2 and again May 6. During those inspections, 11 violations were found, including missing smoke detectors, open electrical wiring and an inadequate number of egress points. The inspections were triggered by a business permit application.
The buildings’ owner, Joseph Soley, and property manager P.J. Roberts were given 32 days from May 6 to address the violations and failed to do so. City officials had been trying to contact him or a property manager for months, city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said.
Soley did not return calls for comment Thursday. Soley, a major commercial real estate holder in Portland, has a long history of legal disputes with the city about maintenance of his properties. He also has been sued successfully by tenants for failing to address fire and safety concerns.
Firefighters and cleanup companies spent much of the day Thursday mopping up after the fire, which was reported about 1:30 a.m. as being in the basement of the Dancing Elephant II, an Indian restaurant that fronts Wharf Street. The acrid smell of smoke lingered heavy in the air outside the building and charred debris piled up outside as pedestrians stopped to survey the damage.
The fire was contained largely to the Indian restaurant, but several adjacent businesses and apartments between Fore and Wharf Street suffered smoke and water damage, in some cases significantly. The fire was hard to tackle because of the age of the building and its many tight spaces, Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said Thursday. The building did not have sprinklers.
Eight people who lived in apartments on the second and third floors were evacuated, but there were no injuries.
The fire’s cause had not been determined by late Thursday and was still under investigation. It is not considered suspicious, Clegg said.
It could be several days or even weeks before the tenants and businesses can return to the building. The Fire Department posted as uninhabitable the entire block of Fore Street between Dana Street and an alley several doors down. The building will be unoccupied until it has been deemed safe by an engineer, Clegg said. The local American Red Cross chapter was available to assist the displaced tenants.
Joe Kelley, who owns Joe’s New York Pizza, said his business will need to be emptied, cleaned and repainted. All of his inventory was lost.
More than that, his employees will not get a paycheck for the foreseeable future.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get back open as soon as possible,” Kelley said, while acknowledging that some things might be out of his control.
Tracy Davis and Emily Mattei of Urban Dwellings, an interior architectural design company on the second floor above Old Port Candy Co., said their business will be displaced, but they don’t know for how long.
Davis and Mattei removed their computers and other files on Thursday and said they will work from another location until they are cleared to return.
Chris Gould and his wife, Paige, recently purchased the building at 414 Fore St., which is next to Dana Street and connected to the building that burned. The Goulds plan to turn the first two floors into a bar and restaurant. Gould said in an email Thursday that his building suffered only smoke damage. He did not expect the damage to delay his plans significantly.
Some businesses at 424 Fore St., including CS Boutique, East End Cupcakes, Old Port Candy and Street and Co., a well-known seafood restaurant, were forced to close Thursday. Andrew Robertson, of East Brown Cow, which manages that building, said most of the damage to his tenants was smoke-related, but he thought Street and Co. would be affected the most. Owner Dana Street did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The Maine Department of Labor’s Rapid Response team contacted affected businesses Thursday to coach them about unemployment benefits for employees and other services. An informational meeting will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. today at the Portland Career Center on Lancaster Street.
According to Portland’s assessing department, the fire-damaged building was built in 1900 and has a taxable value of $835,800. It was not clear how long Soley has owned that property. He recently sold a number of properties on Fore Street that are scheduled to go up for auction next week. The building where the fire started was not among those properties.
Fires in the city’s Old Port section have long been a source of concern. The Old Port was ravaged by a Great Fire in 1866 that claimed more than 1,800 buildings and left several thousand residents homeless. Most of those buildings were built of wood, which burned quickly. The buildings that replaced them were made of brick, and most are still standing.