The Pressbox comes tumbling down

After being severely damaged in a Sept. 29, 2008 fire, and after being the topic of controversy before the Vermillion City Council and local courts, the Pressbox is no more.

On Monday, workers began tearing down the building,  located at 9 W. National Street,  that housed the tavern.

The work comes nearly a year after the city ordered the tavern's owner, Chad Gruenwaldt, to demolish the building because it was unsafe.

The city and Gruenwaldt were finally able to reach an agreement last month, shortly before Gruenwaldt's appeal of the city's order was scheduled to be heard before Circuit Court Judge Steven Jensen.

"Chad agreed to the terms and conditions where he would have to tear the building down," City Manager John Prescott said. "Instead of having a decision being made by a judge, the two parties (Gruenwald and the city) entered into an agreement called a writ of certiorari. Instead of a trial, the parties agreed to argue this issue based on the documents that were already filed.

"Between that discussion happening, and those documents actually being filed, they agreed to the terms that had already been laid out," he said. "So the writ of certiorari never actually had to be filed."

Gruenwaldt and the city agreed to file a document of stipulation and final judgement that was submitted to Judge Jensen for his signature.

This agreement called for Gruenwaldt to apply for a permit to demolish the Pressbox building and clear the building site by Jan. 1, 2010.

Had Gruenwaldt not begun the work by that date, the city would have the option to raze the structure and clear the lot.

The fence that surrounds a portion of The Pressbox property is allowed to remain until June 30, 2010, or until demolition, clearing and new construction at the site is complete.

Gruenwaldt has retained his beer and liquor licenses. "Previously, his licenses had been continued (after the fire) and now the licenses have been issued but are inactive," Prescott said. "They will remain inactive until such time that new construction is complete and any new building passes inspection."

Gruenwaldt was not required to submit any permit for new construction while the demolition process is underway. He will be allowed, should he desire, to rebuild a bar on his property.

"One thing the city council did do, when they issued his liquor license, is to just make it for the building, not for the entire parcel," Prescott said. "He would only be limited to indoor use of the liquor license."

Before the fire, The Pressbox was host to sand volleyball tournaments that took place behind a high fence erected east of the building. The activity proved to be popular with the bar's patrons, but many nearby homeowners complained to the city about the noise the games produced late into the night.

The agreement between the city and Gruenwaldt that lead to the Pressbox's razing this week didn't come easily.

A month after The Pressbox was damaged by fire, Farrel Christensen, the city's building and zoning official, declared that the structure was a dangerous building and ordered it demolished by Dec. 15, 2008. Gruenwaldt appealed Christensen's ruling before the city council, acting as a board of appeals, on both Dec. 1, 2008 and Jan. 19.

After conducting public hearings on those two dates, the alderman determined The Pressbox should be either be demolished or repaired by Gruenwaldt. Gruenwaldt was required to secure all needed permits for the building's repair within 60 days of the council's ruling. That 60-day time period ended March 23.

On March 20, Gruenwaldt applied for an extension and a building permit to repair The Pressbox. After reviewing the application, city officials issued a written decision denying the extension and permit application. At the time, Christensen pointed to six deficiencies in Gruenwaldt's application that left him no choice but to deny the extension and the building permit.

According to Christensen, Gruenwaldt failed to provide the city two copies of plans showing dimensions and shape of the lot to be built upon; the exact sizes and location on the lot of buildings already existing, if any, the location and dimensions of the proposed building or alternation; the materials of which it is to be constructed; and the details  and type of construction to be used. All of those details, according to Christensen, are required by city ordinance.

Instead, Gruenwaldt included a list of costs of proposed repairs to the building totaling $90,000. Gruenwaldt also disputed the need to submit plans and conform to current zoning regulations. Gruenwaldt provided the city with a copy of a structural design report, a copy of a letter he received from First National Bank requiring "a full set of building plans" before financing will be approved, the Clay County assessor's office replacement cost and square footage information, and first and second floor layouts with dimensions.

Gruenwaldt had argued last spring that his renovation project is exempt from any plans requirement because the rehabilitation of the building would not entail more than 4,000 square feet. Christensen also pointed out, in his letter to Gruenwaldt, that a set back issue had arisen regarding The Pressbox because of non-comforming use. To battle that claim, Gruenwaldt disputed last spring whether his business was damaged more than 50 percent of its replacement cost in order to try to retain non-comforming use status.

Christensen noted that a factual determination had been made stating that the fire damage to The Pressbox exceeded 50 percent of replacement cost. He also stated that Gruenwaldt never provided him with cost figures to repair the building, forcing him to rely on county assessor and insurance company figures.

Last spring, Gruenwaldt's attorney, Michael Stevens, noted that The Pressbox owner has had to deal with allegations that he may have started the fire. "Obviously, that didn't occur," Stevens said last April. "We have spent many hours fighting with the insurance company, and they have now just recently paid the policy."

Stevens noted at that time that Gruenwaldt also had taken care of all of the debt owed on the premises, and had received financing to restore the building to its original condition. During the April 20 city council meeting, the aldermen agreed with Christensen's assessment, and decided that Gruenwaldt had failed to meet the requirements spelled out in city ordinances.

That lead to the possibility of this disagreements between the city and Gruenwaldt to continue before a judge in court. Last month's agreement between the city and The Pressbox owner stopped the possible court hearing.

"It came down to the issue of whether the building was habitable for a bar, and the applicant (Gruenwaldt) ended up agreeing that he would tear it down. Basically what this was all about was an unsafe structure," Prescott said.

It is alleged that Nathanial Thomas, 21, and Jeremy Broomfield, 20, both of Sioux Falls; and James Broomfield, 21, of Vermillion; are responsible for starting the fire that severely damaged The Pressbox during the early morning hours of Sept. 29, 2008. An investigation determined that the fire was deliberately set.

The three men were arrested by Vermillion police Thursday, July 16. Each suspect was charged with reckless burning or exploding. The charge is a Class 4 felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment in the state penitentiary.

It was estimated that The Pressbox building received fire damage totaling nearly $290,000.

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