Flooding forces tenants to close Gates Briggs building at WRJ

Construction crews continue to install new sidewalks along South Main Street in White River Junction on Tuesday August 16th. Businesses in the Gates Briggs building were closed on Tuesday after being left without power and water due to basement flooding overnight. Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News

Editor’s note: This story by John Lippman first appeared in the Valley News on August 17.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Retail, restaurants and office tenants – including the Windsor County prosecutor – found themselves barred from their spaces in the Gates Briggs building following a “catastrophic failure” of the system sprinkler system, which flooded the basement with more than 3 feet of water, city officials and the building owner said Tuesday.

Tenants may not be able to regain access until the end of this week or early next, and restaurants could be closed for even longer, the latest setback for downtown merchants who have suffered years of disruption of their activity because of the pandemic, a shortage of workers and the city’s infrastructure works that tore up the street and kicked up dirt and dust outside their doorstep.

“We have a chance to fight for the end of Saturday or the end of Monday,” predicted David Briggs, whose family owns the iconic Gates Briggs building and the adjacent Coolidge Hotel building in the heart of the village of White. River Junction.

He said Tuckerbox suffered a more severe blow because flooding damaged the restaurant’s cold storage units.

Briggs said the cascade of events began when a water main that supplied the basement sprinkler system “burst” on Monday afternoon, setting off alarms and causing water to flow into the basement. -soil that became waist deep in a matter of hours. Hartford Public Works and Fire crews responded, eventually locating the shutoff valve with a metal detector under a newly paved North Main Street.

But while all parties – tenants, landlords and city officials – said they were lucky no one was hurt, the flooding of the now-drained basement left behind a layer of mud. and silt several inches thick that will require costly cleaning, in addition to the complete repair of the sprinkler system and basement electrical wiring. (All electricity to the building was cut off, rendering businesses and offices uninhabitable, officials said).

On Tuesday, City of Hartford officials from the Fire Department and Public Works Department were assessing damage to the building, which houses the Briggs Opera House on the second floor and stores, businesses and two restaurants.

Describing it as a “water-related incident”, Hartford Fire Inspector Tom Peltier said the building could not reopen until it passed a series of tests, including an electrical inspection of the condition, a structural integrity inspection and a “fire and life” inspection. . He was unwilling to predict how long each of these steps might take.

“We are just putting the wheels in motion. A piece must leave for the next piece to leave. We have people monitoring and evaluating on each side,” Peltier said Tuesday afternoon. “It just needs to be all together before we can determine occupancy status.”

Hartford Fire Marshal Tom Peltier checks a fire alarm panel in the entrance to the Briggs Opera House on Tuesday. Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News

Cheryl Heath, mother of Tuckerbox owner Jackie Oktay, was at her daughter and son-in-law Vural Oktay’s house on Monday night “looking after the animals” while the Oktays are on vacation when two cooks from the restaurant unexpectedly appeared with distress news: The basement of the Oktays’ restaurant was flooded and authorities ordered everyone to leave the building for safety.

“I got here in 10 minutes,” Heath said Tuesday morning, standing in the driveway behind Tuckerbox with others who had gathered to hear the extent of the damage.

When Heath looked into the darkness of the restaurant’s basement, she discovered that ‘the water level covered the last two steps’ of the staircase, she said, sharing photos showing boxes floating in murky, muddy water. She said the basement is where the restaurant stores food and where Jackie Oktay has his office.

“Luckily the restaurant is closed on Mondays,” Heath said.

She was able to contact the manager, who in turn called Tuckerbox employees and reservation holders to tell them the restaurant would be closed, and they had no information on when it might reopen.

Meanwhile, City of Hartford officials were assessing damage to the building throughout the day. Although the flooding was limited to the basement, officials had to cut power to the building, making flashlights necessary to navigate inside and likely making it difficult to power machinery for the effort to cleaning.

Given a summer-long public works project that includes excavations to replace water and sewer lines that run under Main Street South, tenants wondered on Tuesday whether the infrastructure work had contributed to damaging the water main that caused the flooding.

But Acting Director of Public Works Jeremy Delisle on Tuesday dismissed the possibility, saying he saw no evidence of it.

“You have old systems there. It doesn’t look like the water system has been ‘hammered’ at all,” Delisle said, referring to a sudden buildup or release of water pressure that is commonly associated with such leaks. “I just think it’s a very unfortunate event with the timing and the construction. As far as I know, there’s nothing that jumps out at me to show the cause.

Delisle said that while inspection teams aren’t entirely sure where the problem originated, “it appears that everything (what happened) was in the building.”

In Hartford, building owners are responsible for the water line between the building and the shutoff valve, while the city is responsible for the water line between the shutoff valve and the water main, a Delisle explained.

“We closed the valve and the water leak stopped,” he said.

In the case of the Gates Briggs Building, the valve is located under North Main Street. This further complicated matters because North Main Street had recently been repaved and the location of the shutoff valve had yet to be marked, requiring work crews to use a metal detector to find its location, Delisle said.

Briggs, however, said he was taking a wait-and-see attitude about the cause of the sprinkler system failure.

“I’m sure that will be looked at,” he said, noting that the sprinkler system “works a little differently. It’s an extension of the city’s system, which doesn’t go through a valve or a meter. or whatever it is that we control and is meant to be unhindered because you want that water there when you need it.

Hartford Selectboard member Kim Souza, owner of vintage clothing store Revolution in the Gates Briggs Building, said she was attending a Selectboard meeting on Monday night when City Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis texted Souza to tell that a “main water break” had flooded the building’s basement.

Souza was stuck in the meeting and didn’t arrive on the scene until 10 p.m., where she met with the fire chief and building maintenance worker. Together they showed flashlights in the basement where Souza said the water level was about eight inches, “not as bad as other parts of the building.” She said she had business loss insurance, but “the deductible is high.”

Luckily, Souza said, she was spared the loss of inventory because last weekend she hosted Revolution’s summer sale and “pulled thousands of pounds” of clothing out of the basement.

Facing the mud-covered basement the next morning, she said, was “daunting” but “that’s life in an old building.”

Also, Souza noted, floods often leave other nasty residues in their wake and they were spared that too.

“It didn’t smell like septic tank, so that was encouraging,” she said.

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