Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Former downtown music venue demolished due to contractor mishap, apartments planned

208 Market St., owned by Jospeh Hou, has been demolished down to an empty shell with plans to be rebuilt as a two-story apartment complex. (Port City Daily/Peter Castagno)

WILMINGTON — A downtown building that has been in disrepair for more than five years, after operating as various businesses, is now slated to become luxury one-bedroom apartments. But that’s only after a contractor didn’t properly stabilize the building, which has led to razing the majority of the property and reconstructing from scratch.

READ MORE: 208 Market St. owner files for $1.15M in repairs to avoid condemnation

New Hanover County spokesperson Alex Riley said 208 Market St. property owner Joseph Hou intends to transform the space into a two-story apartment complex. 

Site plans and renderings have yet to reach the county, according to spokesperson Josh Smith. Hou has owned 208 Market St. since 2002 and would not speak to Port City Daily about his plan to build apartments but suggested calling back in two months.

In November, county inspectors found the walls needed to come down because they are not structurally sound and could not be salvaged, leaving the property an open-air empty shell. It’s currently being demolished by HKS Construction, with only the front façade and two side exterior walls standing.

Though built in 1920 and opened as The Manor movie theater in 1941, in more recent years 208 Market St. has been home to multiple live music venues, such as Jacob’s Run, Ziggy’s By the Sea and Throne Theater. It last operated as the Blue Eyed Muse, which shuttered in 2017. County building inspectors confirmed the building was unsafe the same year due to numerous defects and violations from electrical, plumbing, mechanical, fire and building code requirements.

In 2019, a plumbing permit was filed with the county for capping off a toilet, lavatory and sink behind the stage and filling in a lift station; the permit expired before the work was ever completed.

Hou, who also has owned restaurant Szechuan 132 for more than three decades, put 208 Market St. up for sale with Eastern Carolina Commercial Real Estate in 2020 for $1.9 million. He decided instead to lease the building in 2022 to Anthony Durret, who intended to turn the space into an event venue. 

Durret told WHQR in August there was a $175,000 line of credit to upfit the building, but he discovered more issues and estimated the repairs would cost in the realm of $700,000. Durret had entered into a six-year lease on the building, according to WHQR. According to a Dec. 14 Historic Preservation Commission meeting, the lease was terminated.

New Hanover County deemed the downtown structure unsafe for occupancy in June 2023. The condemnation notice listed poor condition of walls, defective construction and decaying issues posed public safety hazards. The structural integrity of the building was also deemed in question due to water intrusion and it faced a slew of code violations.

A permit was approved for work on the 12,622-square-foot building last August, two months after the condemnation was posted. Hou funded a $1.16 million total overhaul and renovation of the structure and intended to bring the building, the first to face condemnation in the county in the last five years, up to code. 

He entered into a contract with William Hartnett of HKS Construction in August 2023 to tear down the interior to a shell and replace the electrical system, remediate mold, fix the roof, stairs and rails, install a new HVAC system, construct new bathrooms, install new plumbing and more. Hartnett said at the Historic Preservation Commission meeting he provided a 100-page report of code violations to building inspectors.

The city meeting called for an after-the-fact waiver for the stay of demolition. Though the New Hanover County permits were submitted properly, the information was not relayed. Once the roof came off Nov. 6, the city issued a stop-work order until the situation was resolved.

According to a Nov. 14 letter sent by Chris Holmes PE and Associates to Hartnett, which was shared with nearby business owner Jerry Wilkins of The Atrium, the firm deemed the structure “in high danger of catastrophic failure, which may lead to injury or death.” 

“There were some mistakes made or things done in haste that may have resulted in the need for demolition,” Wilkins told Port City Daily Friday. “Otherwise it would not have had to happen.”

Contractor crews removed the slab on grade and the perimeter soil was dug out on the interior side of the foundation, exacerbating wall stability, according to the letter. 

“We did not recommend that the entire slab and excavation of the interior side of the foundation be removed around the perimeter of the building without installing any shoring or bracing,” Chris Holmes PE and Associates wrote in the letter. 

The firm suggested during a Nov. 11 site visit that Hartnett shore up the walls before continuing to demolish the interior. It especially noted that shoring and bracing were “standard practice of the industry” and needed due to the walls’ condition.

The construction company’s failure to follow the engineers’ advice resulted in substantially more “cracking, settlement, and bulging of the walls and pilasters.” The shifting occurred in a short timeline from when the company removed the slabs and soils, the letter added.

“It was never our intent for these walls to come down,” Hartnett told the Historic Preservation Commission in December. However, he said he discovered water running under the building, which, coupled with a lack of footing on the walls, led to increased destabilization.

“It’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure that building comes down safely,” Hartnett added, calling the demo process one of “peeling back layers of an onion.”

He also acknowledged the engineer’s letter during the Dec. 14 meeting: “I’ll take full responsibility for anything I do.” He added the engineer’s site visits and the removal of the concrete slab occurred within a few days of one another.

In effect, the walls had an inadequate foundation, with adjacent properties adding pressure to the unreinforced structure. The engineering firm said in its letter the remaining walls had to be demolished in the interest of safety, and rather than the project continue as an upfit, it needed to be a “complete change.”

It also noted The Atrium’s courtyard at 15 S. Second St. and the adjacent building — Ponysaurus, the new taproom and kitchen opening at 214 Market St. — should not be occupied until that happened.

New Hanover County inspector Thomas Harrell issued an emergency permit Nov. 16, agreeing with the engineers the structure was unsafe. He also suggested shoring up braces and removing exterior walls that abut The Atrium venue to one side and soon-to-be-opened Ponysaurus on another.

The wall adjacent to The Atrium was torn down as of this week; the venue remains closed through January. The Atrium’s wall was more than 150 years old and had ivy plantings growing across it from the last 30 years. Wilkins said it provided a picturesque backdrop for hundreds of events, particularly weddings, which the Atrium hosts frequently.

Wilkins said his business has been significantly impacted by the demolition and he had to relocate a handful of events scheduled for December due to the issues created by the demolition.

“I don’t know the extent of what further business interruption we’ll have,” Wilkins said, adding he hopes everything will be complete before The Atrium’s wedding season kicks off in March.

The wall next to Ponysaurus is scheduled for removal this month as well, just as the brewery had a soft opening for friends and family this week. It’s currently being reinforced by braces, but owner Nick Hawthorne-Johnsons said if work is not completed on time, it could delay additional plans. The 208 Market St. wall impacting Ponysaurus leads into the brewery’s yet-to-be finished outdoor terrace.

“We were told the wall would be done being demolished by now, and it’s not yet, so I guess it remains to be seen if it will delay opening the beer garden,” he said.

Hartnett said at the Dec. 14 meeting, the adjacent business owners have been “gracious” and cooperative with his efforts.

“We’re sad about the loss of a historically significant building, and one that was an iconic fixture in downtown for so many for so long, and just hopeful that the work which has to be done now is able to be completed safely and quickly so we can use the alley that serves as the entrance to our beer garden soon,” Hawthorne-Johnson said.

The front façade and one side wall of 208 Market St. were considered salvageable and propped up with added support, county spokesperson Riley said.

A master architectural design for the new rebuild of 208 Market St. will require both county and city approval for compliance. The project will need to go to the technical review committee and also requires approval by the Historic Preservation Commission since the property is located in Wilmington’s historic overlay district.

Historic Wilmington Foundation Travis Gilbert confirmed the building is a non-contributing resource to the district.

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