Washington’s infamous eyesore, the collapsed building at 15 N. Main St., will soon be torn down, now that the lot has a new owner.
Republican mayoral candidate and businessman Mark Kennison purchased the lot in June, started clearing debris from the area Saturday, and eventually, wants to put in something new.
“I think there might still be some memories of mismanaged property and neglect, but I truly believe that people are going to celebrate this as a victory,” Kennison said.
It was known as the Montgomery Building before it collapsed July 12, 2017, trapping resident Megan Angelone inside for more than nine hours. At the time, the building was owned by siblings Mark and Melissa Russo, who have been hit with multiple code violation allegations and lawsuits resulting from the collapse.
Since then, the Russos sold the building as part of their legal dealings to Kyrk Pyros, president of Allegheny Crane Rental Inc., which responded to the scene that day to help stabilize the building and participated in some emergency demolition in the days that followed.
Washington Mayor Scott Putnam said that while Pyros owned the building, the city couldn’t do anything about the rubble that sat on North Main, as Pyros is suing the city for unpaid services.
“The city didn’t have control of the property for two years,” Putnam said. “We couldn’t go into a building we didn’t own with that litigation hanging over us. Since they owned the building, there’s no way we could have done anything with it.”
The property went up for sheriff’s sale in September, but no one bought it. On June 28, Kennison bought the lot at the county tax sale for $1,537. He now owns five properties on North Main – 3 and 19 North Main are the two buildings on either side of the collapsed structure. The two he owns across the street are the Presidents Pub at 88 N. Main and the building that hosts Ross Farm Mercantile at 78 N. Main.
He said he bought 15 N. Main because the “eyesore” that was left there for two years was affecting his ventures at his next-door properties, in particular his new wedding venue 19 North, the former VIP Nightclub. He said he was planning his first wedding there, and the couple asked if there was any way to clean up the rubble of the next-door building before their big day Aug. 3.
“They didn’t want that to be a part of their memories,” Kennison said. “People who book with our venue are not going to want some of the most memorable days of their lives to take place next door to this collapsed building.”
He was going to ask for the owner’s permission to cover the demolished storefront with a façade, but when he saw it went to the county tax sale, he decided to buy it instead. He said he got a building permit and contracted RJ Steele Construction to build the wall in front of the building in time for the Whiskey Rebellion Festival in mid-July.
“I’m good friends with people who volunteer for the festival, so this was something I could do,” he said.
After the city issued him a demolition permit, Kennison began clearing debris from the site with a group of volunteers Saturday. He said they worked in the back of the building doing yard work, stacking bricks, creating a path for machines to access the building and using dirt to build a ramp and mitigate the steep drop-off.
In a video posted to Kennison’s Facebook page Saturday, the group also tore down a brick wall of the building.
City officials expressed concerns with volunteers doing demolition work at the site, because of the potential presence of asbestos and further collapse. City Councilman Ken Westcott said there’s a 15-to-20-foot drop from the sidewalk of North Main Street to the basement of that building. He said he was concerned that demolition of the building could potentially collapse the sidewalk or the street.
“We’d like the whole thing done by a professional crew, but that part especially because it will have an impact on the streetscape,” he said.
Kennison said the volunteers didn’t go inside the building Saturday and that the contractor he had hired, Andrew Yetter with Wolfe Yetter Properties LLP, was there to oversee the work. He said Yetter will be overseeing all phases of the demolition, some portions of which may be complex and require additional expertise, such as architectural engineers.
“It’s definitely going to take the work of an engineer to determine how that’s going to be taken down,” he said. “There’s a lot of standing structure still, and it’s not really safe. We will hire experts to get in there before we take everything down.”
Westcott and Putnam said there’s still about $50,000 worth of stabilization equipment in the basement of that building. Washington Fire Chief Gerald Coleman said that shoring equipment, which belongs to the Urban Search and Rescue Team from Pittsburgh, could still be holding up a portion of the building.
“The building had collapsed a couple of times that day,” Coleman said. “When the secondary collapse happened, the shoring basically caught the building and stopped the building from collapsing again. And that’s what it was intended to do.”
Coleman said he’s not entirely sure how much equipment is down there or how much of it is actually supporting the building, now that it’s been two years.
“It’s an assumption that the equipment is still carrying a load,” he said.
Kennison and Coleman said that once the demolition process gets to that point, Kennison will contact Coleman to let his trained firefighters remove the shoring equipment.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” Coleman said. “That’s why our guys will be there to make sure it’s pulled out properly and to make sure no one gets hurt.”
Kennison’s vision for the space is to eventually have a new building with commercial and residential opportunities, but he’s open to ideas.
“We want to put things downtown that will attract foot traffic,” he said. “Washington also needs new living opportunities downtown. I want to contribute to a true renaissance of the downtown.”
Rebuilding at 15 N. Main is not his first priority, however. All three stories of the building at 3 N. Main Street – which he purchased from Felix and Maria Magnotta of Canton Township in May – still sit vacant. Kennison thought he had a tenant for the first floor, but the owners of the Perked UP Café in Charleroi and Belle Vernon backed out of opening a third location, Kennison said.
His main focus right now, Kennison said, is booking events at the 19 North venue. He said he’s planning Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s Eve events, as well as a dinner for local veterans and a “heroes dinner” to raise money for the city’s police and fire departments to purchase a drone.
“Financially, you have to pick and choose,” Kennison said. “We have to create revenue to be able to keep going, not rush forward with more construction.”
Earlier this year, Kennison’s restaurant, Presidents Pub, filed for bankruptcy. He also had to settle a series of overdue liens for delinquent property taxes, which he blamed on the collapsed building.
He told a reporter in April that the collapse caused tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damages to the 19 North building. Kennison had applied for a Small Business Administration loan to finish the renovations and to pay off back taxes on that building, but after the collapse, the bank he was working with decided the investment was too great a risk.