|323 Northampton, latest design|
This building, a former Dollar Store once known as the Semple Building, is currently owned by Luan of Kosovo, LLC. It was purchased from the Cusano family in December 2014, for $337,000. Papers filed with the Department of State list company headquarters as the River Grille, which is owned by Mick Gjevukaj. He is also the owner of another Easton eatery called Ocean 235. The Deed on record for 323 Northampton directs that all tax notices be sent to 5 Deer Run Road in Pittston, N.J., which is owned by Faruk Gjevukaj.
We know from a news account in October 2015 that the old Dollar Store was being converted into yet another downtown restaurant that one could hope would match the success at River Grille and Ocean.
This is where things get strange.
Like many cities, Easton has a Historic District, and this property is in it. Under Easton's Historic Preservation Ordinance,
The Code Administrator shall not issue a building permit(s) for any erection, alteration, reconstruction, repair, restoration or demolition of all or part of any building in the district until Easton City Council has issued a certificate of appropriateness (COA). If the Code Administrator or his or her representative issues a building permit(s) without a COA due to an administrative or clerical error, said building permit(s) shall be voidedThus, any of the work done at 323 Northampton St, whether it is tearing down a facade or gutting a building, requires a COA.
In October of last year, when Gjevukaj first began demolition work on this site, did he have a COA?
That concern was expressed at the Easton Facebook page yesterday. Bill Carr states, "[T]here was never a C of A issued for this project. ... Any external demolition from the outset required approval from the Historic District Commission in the form of a Certificate of Appropriateness and this never happened. No demolition should have been authorized or given a permit without HDC approval."
But Easton Mayor Sal Panto disputes this contention. "They [the owners] did a great job on Ocean and RiverGrill. They are investing millions in our city and creating jobs. The inspections have and will take place but we don't have an inspector on site all day. And as far as taking off the ugly 50's facade however can they tell what they have? The HDC has approved their plans and their C of A."
Who is right?
COAs must be approved by City Council before any work is started. So if City Council did approve one for 323 Northampton, as Panto claims, this could be confirmed by reviewing Council minutes. I reviewed the Council minutes of every meeting in 2015 - twice - and am unable to locate any COA. Perhaps I missed it. Perhaps Panto misspoke.
According to Panto, "The city filed two citations today against the owners and the contractor. But that doesn't solve any of the problems of the past. It only charges them with some fines for their actions. The important thing to remember is that they are acting responsibly to stabilize and then demo the affected area and continue with the project as presented to the historic district commission. So this is my final comment on [Facebook] but the next time people call city hall and don't get an answer or an answer they like all they have to do is call me. I am totally accessible.".
If they are acting responsibly, why the citations? If they are acting responsibly, why the hell did the building collapse? Was the City using unqualified workers?
Updated 2:30 am: For the second time, an Express Times article about this collapse calls it storm damage. While there is little doubt that Wednesday's downpour might be the immediate cause, poor workmanship might be the underlying reason. The contractor doing this demolition has been identified as Tamco Construction, which has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.
Updated 10:20 am: An Express Times news account indicates that the two citations referred to above have been lodged against owner Luan of Kosova, identified above, and contractor Bee Green Homes. This is not the contractor previously identified.