The lowdown on Old Milltown: Ace owner says she can’t afford to stay

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Prudence Swann gets emotional when she talks about the chain of events that is causing her to close the Edmonds Ace Hardware franchise she owns in the Old Milltown building on 5th Avenue South and South Dayton, following a liquidation sale going on through June 1.

“It’s not that we don’t want to stay open,” Swann said. “The community has been so wonderful to us and we have loved being there.” Swann, who owns another Ace hardware franchise in Mukilteo, said the decision to close came down to economics: She will be losing much of her nearly $1 million investment due to the store’s unforeseen closure, and can’t afford to relocate and reopen elsewhere. Although her landlord, Cascade Bank, is not holding her to her lease, Swann said that proceeds from the liquidation will be going to the bank, with anything leftover being use to help offset her losses.

She says she is devastated about leaving the community and about leaving her employees without jobs, including her son-in-law, Jared Burris, who manages the store. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Swann said. “My husband and I loved Edmonds and have truly enjoyed being there. It’s really an unfortunate situation.”

Moving out temporarily while repairs were made to shore up the Old Milltown building’s second floor, which structural engineers hired by Cascade Bank have said wasn’t suitable for the weight of a hardware store, also would have also resulted in a huge financial loss, according to both Swann and her attorney, Matthew Davis.

“The floor had not been designed or constructed to support the load of a hardware store,” Davis said. “As a result of the excess weight, the floor was deflecting, and the concrete subfloor was cracked. The fix was going to require Ace hardware to move out, then to take up the floor and retrofitting from both above and below.”

According to Davis, the estimated six to nine months to do such work “made it almost impossible to bring the store back after the fix. Closing a new store for that long and then reopening is really just opening a new store,” he said. “In real round numbers, if the store had to close, something around a million dollars of investment would just disappear.”

The International Building Code governs floor load limits for construction, Davis said. Under the code, upper floor limits must be engineered to support 50 pounds per square foot (psf) of live load for an office building and 75 psf for retail space. While the second floor of the Old Milltown building received a City of Edmonds permit for office use, at 50 psf, it was actually built to 80 psf, he said.

“The difficulty here is that there is only one retail standard, but lots of different retail uses,” Davis said. “And hardware stores impose a greater load than most. The biggest problem is the paint area because it packs a lot of weight into a small area.”

How much weight? According to consulting engineers brought in to investigate the floor’s cracks, “areas of the Ace Hardware store such as the paint and hardware aisles have an estimated 135 psf to 185 psf of current floor loading.”

The bottom line: The current 80 psf “really wasn’t adequate for that type of weight,” Davis said.

So how did a hardware store end up on the second floor of a building that couldn’t support the weight? Swann said that before she signed the lease for the Old Milltown building, corporate Ace Hardware representatives from Chicago flew out to have a look at the second-floor space. The group met with Gregg Production Associates, Inc., and were told that “the building was designed and built to support something like 250 psf, which would be more than adequate,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t.”

Gregg Production Associates, Inc., is owned by developer Bob Gregg, who told My Edmonds News in a phone interview that he couldn’t publicly comment on the situation, given the possibility of future litigation.

Davis said it’s uncertain yet whether Swann or Cascade Bank, which took over the property from Gregg”s company through foreclosure, will proceed with legal action. “It really is too early to say who was responsible, but it seems like there were many opportunities to catch this,” said Davis, who was quick to point out that the City of Edmonds “had no role”  in the problem.

“This was not the City’s fault,” Davis said. “Most of the current city staff weren’t around when the project was done, but even if they had been, this was not the kind of thing that a building department should have caught.  Building departments approve plans based on the application, and this one was properly approved.  If I had any comment about the building department, it would be that they responded very quickly to our concerns.  I called the building official shortly before noon to let him know of our concerns, and he met with us a few hours later, and then jumped right on it.”

Rob Disotell, chief credit officer for Cascade Bank, said that from a legal standpoint, the bank  is “doing our due diligence to determine the chain of events that led up to Ace not being in that space.”  Meanwhile,  repairs will be made to cracks in the floor, but he emphasized that the building and the floor have no structural problems — just a requirement  for a “lighter” tenant.

“We think it’s an important building for downtown Edmonds, and we’re doing everything we can to get the best tenants in there,” Disotell said. “We’ll be very careful that it (the future tenant) meets the needs of the community.”

Both Swann and Davis noted that Cascade Bank has been very understanding of the situation. “Many landlords in its situation would have minimized or denied the problem and tried to force the tenant to stay,” Davis said. “It genuinely seemed that Cascade just wanted to do the right thing.”

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