City builds a $200,000 staircase – and may move it

Should it stay or should it go? That’s a questioned being pondered about a seemingly stairway to nowhere.

As part of the city’s decision to demolish a portion of the Front Street parkade, the city built a new staircase in front of a building at 649 Front St. While the staircase doesn’t yet connect to the building, it was required to provide a fire escape for the second and third floors of the commercial building.

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“It’s required by code,” said Jim Lowrie, the city’s director of engineering. “Previously, they had ramps or bridges right across to the parkade. That was their means of egress in the event of a fire.”

When the city took down the western portion of the Front Street parkade, it was obligated to replace the building’s emergency exit.

“We consider it temporary, however, temporary is a maybe a subjective term. Temporary can be longer than what you might think. It might be a period of years if we don’t have an alternative solution,” Lowrie said. “We are in discussions with the property owner. They are planning to do some improvements to that building and if there is a chance that we can piggyback on those improvements, then the external stairs would no longer be required.”

The staircase, which cost $200,000 to construct, doesn’t currently connect to the building.

“Not yet,” Lowrie said. “We have to remove the overhead utility lines. That work has yet to be completed.”

Whether or not the staircase gets connected to the commercial building remains to be seen.

“It depends,” Lowrie said. “We are in discussions with the property owner right now. If we can find an alternative solution earlier, than it may not have to be connected. If it looks like it will take a longer period of time then we will definitely connect it.”

If the city decides to move the staircase, it will find a new home elsewhere on Front Street.

“The staircase can be reused,” Lowrie said. “On the remaining parkade there are a couple sets of stairs that were not rehabilitated. They are the old stairs. We would modify these stairs and move them over to the eastern portion of the parkade.”

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr described the staircase as “a monster” – but feels it could become part of the streetscape over time.

“Personally, I think it would grow into Front Street. It will become part of the charm,” he said. “It is sure prettier than that parkade.”

While some people have suggested a spiral staircase would have been a better fit in the new Front Street mews, Puchmayr said that’s not in the cards.

“Unfortunately, the modern-day building code, when it comes to emergency exits, is pretty strict. You have to be able to bring a stretcher down or a person in a wheelchair. It’s not just a matter of the old-fashioned fire escapes where there’s a little 18-inch ladder with a 10-foot drop at the bottom. Those don’t apply any more.  You have to build it to the standard,” he said. “It’s complicated.”

David Sarraf, who owns the 1898 commercial building at 649 Front St., said some people have complained that the staircase is an eyesore, but he doesn’t mind it at all.

“It is big. You know what? Compared to what we had before, it’s a beautiful structure,” he said. “It’s a waste of money for the city to take it down.”

On a warm summer day, Sarraf spotted people sitting near the new staircase.

“Old Crow Coffee, they put chairs and tables there. It was good,” he said. “It was so hot and sunny and people liked the shade there.”

If city decides to move the staircase, Sarraf said he’s willing to work with city hall to find ways to address the emergency access issues.

“People in the city, they are trying to make everybody happy. It’s not an easy subject. It’s complicated and it’s difficult. You cannot make everybody happy,” he said. “I think personally the best way and the cheapest way – just leave it. Connect it and finish it. We will get used to it.”

With or without the staircase, Sarraf thinks the Front Street mews is a vast improvement over what existed on the street before.

“It’s beautiful. My tenants and everybody loves it,” he said. “Everybody complained along the way. It’s like giving birth. There’s a lot of pain, it’s painful, but then you have the baby and forget the pain and the nine months. That’s how I look at it.”

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