Before fire, state told OC not to tear down front of historic hotel

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With the demolition of the Bellevue as a backdrop, fire Chief Chris Breunig speaks at a press conference Friday afternoon in the 800 block of Ocean Avenue. With the demolition of the Bellevue as a backdrop, fire Chief Chris Breunig speaks at a press conference Friday afternoon in the 800 block of Ocean Avenue.

OCEAN CITY – Three days after Ocean City was denied permission to knock down the Bellevue Hotel in its entirety, the historic structure at Eighth Street and Ocean Avenue caught fire Friday, Sept. 28, resulting in authorization for its complete demolition.

“Sadly, the combination of neglect by the previous owner and today’s fire makes demolition the only prudent action,” wrote Daniel Saunders, administrator of the New Jersey state Historic Preservation Office, in a letter to the city dated Sept. 28, 2012.

However, in its letter dated Sept. 25, the HPO had deemed Ocean City’s documentation as inadequate to merit a recommendation of demolition of the front six-story portion of the building.

“The information submitted barely addresses the six-story main portion of 701-703 Eighth Street. It certainly does not adequately document that the six-story, front, main portion of 701-703 Eighth Street is structurally unstable, nor does it document that the six-story, front, main portion of 701-703 Eighth Street constitutes an immediate, direct, demonstrable, and severe hazard to the public safety,” Saunders wrote.

The HPO instead ordered the city to stabilize and mothball the front of the six-story main section in accordance with National Park Service guidelines. Additionally, it rejected the city’s use of Czar Engineers in assessing the viability of the Bellevue on the grounds the contractor lacked “required demonstrated experience with historic properties.”

In its Sept. 25 letter, the HPO had approved the demolition of the rear of the structure, a four-story addition to the circa-1900 hotel that had been declared unsafe when water pooled on the roof last month and caused a section of the west side to bow out. The demolition was permitted under the conditions that it cause no physical damage to surrounding properties or to the Bellevue’s six-story, front main building.

Speaking Friday afternoon following a press conference in the 800 block of Ocean Avenue, city business administrator Mike Dattilo said the city’s approach had been to demolish the back portion of the Bellevue while it took “a few days to gather more information to present to them (HPO).”

The back portion, where an acetylene torch used to remove fire escapes from the exterior of the building had started the fateful fire, was within the scope of the demolition work approved by the state historic preservation agency.

As to how the city intended to address the inadequacies of Czar, Dattilo said Ocean City  had designated its own engineer as having historic experience, but that it seemed “all the right people had not received Art Chew’s report.”

“Obviously, we’re unhappy the building is coming down at all,” said Jack Ball, chair of Ocean City’s Historic Preservation Commission. “Personally, I’m unhappy the city did not come before the Historic Commission for our opinion. They did not feel they needed our permission.”

Ball said the city violated an ordinance that “spells out how you get a building torn down” and denied OCHPC its objective to “advise and assist city officers, employees, boards and other bodies including those at the county, state and federal levels on all matters which have potential impact on the historic buildings, places, structures and districts in the city or on the physical character and ambience of a district.”

While a historic place listed on both the state and national registers, the Bellevue is not within Ocean City’s historic district. The boundaries of the town’s historic district are the south side of Third Street to the north side of Eighth Street from the alley between Asbury and Central avenues to the west side of Ocean Avenue. So while the Bellevue is south of Third and north of Eighth, it is not west of Ocean, placing it outside Ocean City’s historic district.

Dattilo said it was important to note that had the owner of the Bellevue, listed as Ocean City Plaza, LLC of Brookhaven, Pa., had the money to demolish the building itself, there would have been no obligation to inform the state of its intentions. But since taxpayer money was used to fund the $158,000 demolition cost, Ocean City was required to report its intentions to the state historic organization.

The city issued a purchase order for the demolition on Sept. 11, two weeks before the HPO denied it permission to knock down the building. On Sept. 7, the day after construction official Pat Newton’s inspection of the building resulted in his recommendation that the building be demolished, the city began accepting bids for the demolition work.

“The demolition proceeded as scheduled and planned,” Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Breunig said at Friday’s press conference, then added, “It was probably expedited at this point.”

“In its day, it was a grand old hotel,” Dattilo said. “It’s unfortunate that it ends this way. But in reality, it was already demolished by neglect.”

“We can’t replace these buildings,” said Ball of the OCHPC. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

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