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Rockport River condos caught fire in the early stages of type 5 construction, which does not include sprinkler systems or drywall early on. Building Commissioner Ray Reich believes this is why the flames got out of control so quickly.

The landlord whose 13-suite apartment building was damaged by a historic fire Feb. 23 at an adjacent condominium complex under construction is moving all tenants out of the building with no set date when they can return.

The tenants were asked to leave the building on Hilliard Boulevard on March 5 because the building’s owners plan to remove and replace the roof, apartment building manager Mike Grgat said in a phone interview Friday.

“We did everything we could to get these tenants back into their homes,” Grgat said. “Unfortunately, when the insurance companies get involved, things get complicated and they wanted the building to be empty while crews worked to replace the roof.”

The once-in-a-career fire that caused an estimated $10.5 million in damage and destroyed the under-construction Rockport River condominiums is having other impacts.

Rocky River leaders are considering changing the city’s building code to eliminate wood-frame construction on apartment and condominium projects. Officials are weighing how to write the change and how it would affect construction of multi-family buildings, said city Law Director Andy Bemer.

The fire also caused a total of $10,000 in damage to two of Rocky River’s three fire trucks. They have not been repaired yet.

“We’ve never had a fire this big in the city before,” Rocky River Fire Prevention Officer Joe Williams said. “This type of thing generally does not happen here.”

The state fire marshal has been unable to determine the cause of the fire, though foul play has been ruled out. Fire Chief Aaron Lenart set the estimated fire damage at $10.5 million.

It’s been more than three weeks since state and city fire inspectors allowed nine tenants who were evacuated during the fire from their two-story building on Hilliard to return.

“We worked tirelessly that entire week to make sure those people had somewhere to live by the end of the week,” Rocky River Building Commissioner Ray Reich said. He said the city was unaware that the tenants had been asked to vacate the building until told by a West Life reporter. He said the city has not received complaints about the landlord.

The building’s management has offered to help relocate some residents while others were refunded their March rent. No move-out date was set, allowing time for those affected to make new living arrangements. It’s unclear when tenants will be able to move back to the apartment once the roof is repaired, Grgat said.

Tenants contacted last week declined to comment. Some said they were told by the landlord not to talk to the media. Three of the 13 units were unoccupied at the time of the fire. Several were filled with Section 8 tenants.

One theory about the sudden push to vacate the building is that Pride One Construction Co., the developer overseeing the construction of Rockport River, and the apartment’s owners plan to merge their properties into a larger condo project. This would add 0.442 acres to Rockport’s 1 acre and permit the construction of more condominiums.

Grgat calls those rumors untrue.

Several calls to Adam Horrocks at Pride One’s offices in Medina were not returned as of presstime. Pride One razed two apartment buildings at 18613 and 18617 Hilliard Blvd. to create the space for the Rockport project.

Pride One officials have confirmed with the city that they plan to rebuild, Reich said.

Insurance companies representing the developers and the various subcontractors continue to investigate. With that investigation ongoing and how unusual the situation is, city officials have not given Pride One a deadline to resume construction, Reich said.

“We really don’t know the scope of what work needs to be done right now because we haven’t been able to get onto the property and look at it yet,” he said.

The original project called for 24 luxury condos overlooking the Rocky River Reservation. Each unit was to have a private balcony and either two or three bedrooms. Prices per condo started at $335,000.

The state fire marshal along with Rocky River’s fire inspector and Building Department officials spent four days evaluating the apartment following the fire. The investigation found that four units on the first and second floors closest to the fire incurred the most damage while nine others were unaffected, Williams said.

Officials found nothing wrong with the building’s overall structure, noting only that the hallway carpets needed to be removed. Tenants in the unaffected units were allowed to return to their homes by Feb. 29, Reich said.

Following the fire, the American Red Cross, Northeast Ohio Region assisted nine apartment residents, distributing $2,630 in emergency financial assistance and providing them with blankets, snacks, water and comfort kits containing personal hygiene items on the night of the fire, Red Cross spokesman Jim McIntyre said.

The two-story building was built in 1961 and holds one- and two-bedroom units. It was purchased by Hilliard Boulevard Apartments LLC in 2015 for $501,000 and is currently valued at $472,400, according to the Cuyahoga County website.

The building department inspects the apartment every three years, Reich said. The most recent inspection was in August. The only complaints the city has noted about the building involve trash on the side of the hill going into the Rocky River Reservation in 2004 and snow on the sidewalk that needed to be removed in 2015.

Reflecting on the devastation caused by the fire that produced immense, intense flames and belched smoke that could be seen over Lake Erie from Euclid, Reich and Bemer have begun researching how they can limit what forms of construction occur in the city. They are primarily looking at what’s known as Type 5 construction, which consists entirely of wood and other combustible materials.

This is the type Pride One used for its four-story building, a $7 million project that was expected to be done this spring. Workers had finished the wood framing, which 13 mph southerly winds fanned. The fire spread quickly, burning through the wood-frame construction, along with other Type 5 materials: glue, resin and plastics, which added more fuel and heat.

Concerns about construction materials and methods were raised during a monthly meeting of Cuyahoga County’s fire chiefs about how these fires could be prevented, Reich said.

Bemer is working with officials in Westlake, where Type 5 construction is prohibited.

“By understanding what Westlake did to remove this from their code, we can start charting a path for us to do the same,” he said.

One issue, Bemer said, is Rocky River must determine home-rule authority for a municipality to supersede a state-mandated law.

City officials are looking to remove wood-frame construction and require unreinforced masonry as firewalls.

“The main thing I would tell other cities looking to remove this from their code is this: make sure to go through the legal channels.” said Donald Grayem, Westlake’s director of inspections and chief building official. “When Westlake enacted this legislation, it was not well received. It was challenged by the state and adjudicated in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court.”

Legislation to change the code is a long way from coming before Rocky River City Council. Officials are weighing what they stand to gain and lose from the process, Bemer said.

“Our most recent master plan outlined a plan to increase our housing stock,” he said. “However, we have very limited parcels of land that allow us to do so and if we were to propose a change like this, we need to understand how developers would react to working with costlier materials to meet our standards.”

As the Building Department and Law Department consider those issues, the city’s fire department is waiting for the two damaged fire trucks to be repaired.

One truck, which the city bought in 1996, will have windshield cracks and melted lights repaired. A ladder truck, which the city bought last year for $1.2 million, will have melted lights and warped metal panels replaced. One of Fairview Park’s two fire trucks was damaged too. A broken window, melted lights and fire hoses will be replaced on the 2018 truck.

The trucks were evaluated earlier this month at Fallsway Equipment Co. in Akron, which services fire and emergency vehicles.

Members of the Rocky River firefighters union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, inspected both trucks after the fire. While they raised some concerns regarding the ladder truck’s hydraulics, the union inspectors approved both trucks for service while they waited to be repaired, Williams said.

The Rocky River Fire Department was alerted to the fire at the Hilliard Boulevard worksite at 5:55 p.m. Feb. 23. Firefighters parked their trucks at both corners of the building to ensure that the truck’s fog nozzles, which spray a concentrated mist of water, had the best chance of putting out the fire, Williams said.

“The wind kept breaking our streams, so we wanted to improve the reach of our equipment,” he said. “That’s why we fought the fire as close as we did.”

In all, 38 firefighters from six communities joined Rocky River’s 17 firefighters to control and contain the blaze. It was put out around 9 p.m. Firefighters stayed on the scene until 3 p.m. the next day to safeguard against hidden hotspots lingering in the rubble.

Despite two-thirds of the city’s fleet damaged, Williams believes that the community will be just as safe.

“We’re still operating at 100%,” he said. “We’re still going to provide the same level of care we’ve delivered, just in a different manner’

He said that if the department gets overwhelmed with issues across the city, other communities will assist.

Contact this reporter at akamczyc@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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