Demolish or Stabilize? City Awaits Decision on Realty Tower

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The city this afternoon expects to learn from the owner of the Realty Tower what the plans are for the building – to either demolish or stabilize it.

The property owner is ultimately responsible, Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said at a news conference Tuesday morning.

“The reason, and the only reason, that the city has taken an active role in this as we are is because of the public safety and the public welfare of the residents of Youngstown, Ohio,” he said. 

Brown said the onus will be on the owners of the Realty Tower and its representatives. 

“We expect more details from them this afternoon …,” he said.

The Realty Tower is in “imminent danger of collapse without modification” to replace the ground floor bracing systems, according to a structural assessment by Barber & Hoffman Inc., an engineering firm.

Damage to the Realty Tower is seen after the May 28 explosion.

The firm was contracted by the city to perform the assessment and recommended in a Monday letter to Charles Shasho, city deputy director of public works, that all buildings within a 210-foot radius of Realty be closed. It also recommends the city “set a collapse hazard zone” of that distance.

That radius includes the International Towers, which is to be evacuated, and the DoubleTree by Hilton Youngstown Downtown hotel, which has been closed since the May 28 explosion.

Brown said the city is working with the International Towers management company and community partners to find places for the residents to go.

He acknowledged the move will not be easy for any of those involved. 

“Now that we know about it, we have to do something,” Brown said.

The evacuation is expected to be completed in 72 hours. Although the structural engineer said the Realty Tower is in imminent danger of collapse, Brown said the 72-hour time frame was realistic to complete an evacuation.

“We could have said 24 hours, but that wouldn’t have been realistic there, looking at the medical issues there. So we’re going with the evacuation plan that I think fits the building, the folks in that building at this time,” the mayor said.

Heather Namola, manager of International Towers, said it includes 165 occupied units, and only a handful of those units have more than one person living there.

International Towers is an income-based apartment building for people who are age 62 and older or who have a disability. It’s privately owned.

A meeting with residents is set for this afternoon.

Some of those residents may be able to move in with family. For others, outside organizations like the American Red Cross are looking to find accommodations.

Councilman Julius Oliver, 1st Ward, said some area nursing homes have reached out to him to offer assistance. He urged people to remember that downtown remains open for business, asking for continued prayers for residents and businesses.

Bob Hannon, president of the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, said he views his organization’s role as providing basic needs for the building residents and working with the management team.

“I can tell you in the last 45 minutes, I probably had six restaurants text me, ‘Do these people need food?’ I have others reach out to ask, ‘Do they need cots?’ So the community is already stepping up, contacting the United Way,” he said.

Shasho said the collapse danger is mostly due to the collapse of the building’s first floor, which removed the horizontal support of three main columns on the building’s exterior.

“That’s not to say that the building can’t be temporarily stabilized,” Shasho said. “But that’s something we’re demanding from the owner very soon.”

The 210-foot radius collapse zone is determined by 1.5 times the building height.

The explosion at the Realty Tower killed one man, who was an employee of Chase Bank housed on the first floor, injured several others and displaced the residents of Realty’s 34 apartments.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the cause of the explosion, with a preliminary report expected later this month.

Although those investigators weren’t able to enter the Realty Tower because of safety concerns, Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said the agency has what it needs from the building.

“We worked with local authorities to get the video surveillance servers out of the building,” he said in an email. “They are now in our lab here in Washington. We now have everything we need from inside the building.”

“The building closure and collapse hazard zone is recommended to be in place until the building is demolished or made safe by temporary bracing at the ground floor to replace the function of the ground floor diaphragm,” the letter from James Colella, associate principal with B&H, said.

The company also recommends that metal panels not securely attached to the building be removed.

“It is B&H’s understanding that the building owner [and their structural engineer] will determine the required remedications to eliminate the dangerous condition,” the letter said.

The structural engineers visited the site Friday and found that the ground floor had collapsed in multiple locations; the north and west sidewalk vaults have lifted and collapsed in multiple areas; columns at the exterior lines of the building didn’t have apparent damage, but multiple columns “are now only braced by a steel beam in one-direction, due to the partial floor collapse,” the letter to Shasho said.

The analysis also found elevator shaft walls have failed, and the 2005 addition’s metal panel facade has been displaced and is no longer appropriately attached to some of the supporting structure at the upper floors.

“The ground floor damage has significance to the building’s lateral load resisting system,” the letter said. “The northern columns of the tower are now nearly twice the supported height as originally designed.”

The company performed a “very preliminary” structural analysis comparing a column with a length that increased without the ground floor.

“This analysis indicates these columns (unbraced at the ground floor) have a reduced axial capacity of approximately 80%,” the letter says.

It goes on to say that the explosion significantly damaged the ground floor diaphragm of the building, “which distributes lateral forces applied from wind and seismic loading.”

The company performed a preliminary structural lateral analysis comparing the moment frame, which is designed to resist lateral forces by bending, with and without the ground floor.

“The analysis indicates the lateral movement and stresses from these loads will nearly double with removal of the ground floor,” the company’s letter said. “A more thorough analysis was beyond B&H scope of services.”

Pictured at top: From left are Robin Lees, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency; Councilman Julius Oliver; Mayor Jamael Tito Brown; Heather Namola, manager of International Towers; and Bob Hannon, president of the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

Editor’s note: Full coverage of the Realty Tower explosion can be viewed HERE.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.