WOONSOCKET – The few merchants left in Main Street’s prominent Commercial Block have been temporarily forced to close after city officials declared the building unsafe Monday.
Building Inspector Chris Chianese cited the owner, Stamatos Properties of Jamaica Plain, Mass., for failure to provide an approved heating system for the ground floor tenants.
City officials have known of the condition for some time, but the situation apparently came to a head after the Woonsocket Fire Department responded to a report of smoke at the Spoonful of Everything second-hand shop Friday afternoon. Capt. Michael Morin, deputy state fire marshal for the WFD, said investigators determined the cause was an overloaded electrical circuit powering a space heater.
It was the second time firefighters had responded to an electrical fire at the building since Dec. 3, when Liberty Market was extensively damaged. Citing continuing code violations in the building, city officials wouldn’t allow the convenience store to reoccupy the site. The owner, Jamil Sheikh, reopened at 118 Main St., across the street, about a week ago.
Rene Belanger, the proprietor of Main Street Flea Market at 105 Main St., said he has permission to go in the store only to remove personal belongings or retrieve items that are already sold until the problems are corrected.
Asked if he was concerned, Belanger said, “Yeah, this is how I make my living. If I don’t have a store, I can’t make any money.”
John Stamatos, the landlord, struck an apologetic tone in a phone interview, saying the heating issues should be corrected by the end of the week – perhaps early next week at the latest.
“This problem is unfortunate,” he said. “We didn’t want it to come to this. We’re trying to get it resolved as quickly as possible.”
Stamatos acknowledged that the oil-powered furnace that is supposed to supply heat the ground-floor commercial units hasn’t worked for some time. Individual tenants in the affected units have been using electric space heaters.
Stamatos said he has decided not to fix the antiquated boiler as a strategy for addressing the problem. Instead, he’s hired a company to switch the heating system to gas. All tenants will have individual heating units in the space leased to them.
Despite the deteriorating condition of the site, city officials consider the Commercial Block a vital architectural component of Main Street. Built in 1902, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and city officials consider it an increasingly rare example of the turn-of-the-century, mixed-use structures that were once a staple of the traditional downtown.
The three-story building, which encompasses all the addresses from 95-117 Main St., includes 11 commercial spaces on the ground floor, including an old bank, but at least six are currently vacant. The latest refugees include Renaissance Tattoo, which recently relocated to another building on Main Street, and Liberty Market. Harlequin Costumes, a longtime tenant that catered to theater groups, moved out earlier this year, citing issues with heat.
The remaining tenants include a nail salon and several vendors who deal is antiques and second-hand goods. Virtually any passerby can see that the building has taken on a shabby look of late, with piles of debris strewn about the floor of vacant units, grimy storefront windows and entryways scattered with litter – even dog feces, from time to time.
The second story of the building includes 16 dormitory-style apartments, nine of which are currently leased, according to Stamatos. Those tenants were unaffected because they have electrical heating systems, he said.
There is also a third level on the building, but it hasn’t been used for anything but storage for some time.
Stamatos Properties bought the property out of foreclosure in 2011 for about $300,000, making some optimistic forecasts about plans for upgrading the building.
Stamatos said the company made those pronouncements in good faith, but it has had to pour more resources than expected into correcting unforeseen problems that seem to be cropping up on a regular basis.