Gym jumps through hoops

Chapel Hill now has two town-owned buildings that can’t be rented out due to overdue maintenance. The Chapel Hill Museum building at 523 E. Franklin St. was shuttered in June 2011 because the town did not have the approximately $800,000 to do the repairs. And last week, Orange County Gymnastics learned it would have to close because it can’t move back into the building it leased on Homestead Road because the town does not have the resources to pay $165,000 to ameliorate the mold and asbestos problems it found there.

To be fair, the town did not know about the maintenance problems when it leased the building to Tim and Jessica Baker, the gymnastics business owners. The building had been rented for 30 years to another gymnastics business, and that tenant did not report any problems. Mold is not always apparent, and asbestos is only a problem if it is disturbed and becomes airborne. So no one acted in bad faith.

The Bakers bought what used to be known as Sport Art Gymnastics in mid-December and renamed it Orange County Gymnastics. When they began to do some renovations, they found water damage in the building that had ruined some equipment. The town agreed to make the repairs and clean up the mold, and the Bakers signed a two-month lease at University Mall in the space that had been leased by Kerr Drug but had been empty for more than two years. While doing the work, the town discovered the expensive-to-remove asbestos.

When the town canceled the Bakers’ lease on the Homestead Road building, the Bakers considered approaching University Mall about extending their lease. The relocation had proved a good fit, more convenient for many of the 260 families whose children take classes at Orange County Gymnastics, and it brought more customers to browse the children’s shops the mall has added in the past year. Wanting to avoid more surprises, the Bakers called the fire marshal to make sure there were no problems with the U Mall space.

On Feb. 17, Fire Marshal Matt Lawrence gave the Bakers bad news: The space the mall had rented to them was up to code for mercantile use, but not for assembly use, the category for the gymnastics business, which mall management should have known to check before offering the temporary lease, given that it had been through the process with the library and Deep Dish Theater.

To meet the requirements for the assembly use code, the mall would have to build a firewall between the gym and the mercantile businesses flanking it, add a fifth exit, bring the bathrooms up to ADA standards and make other upfits. The mall declined to make that investment, preferring to look for a mercantile tenant.

Tonight the Bakers are petitioning Town Council to come up with the money to make the Homestead Road building habitable again. Given that the building lease is $14,000 annually, it would take the town 12 years to recoup the cost of the repairs. But think of all the money the town has saved over 30 years of virtually no maintenance. What council directs the town manager to do will reflect whether the town is open for a gymnastics business.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Mark Peters

     /  February 27, 2012

    Seems like I read that the primary issue with the categorization is in case they have 1000 folks instead of 100 or so? Seems like the gym owners could agree to a max occupancy appropriate for their number of students, number of bathrooms and escapes and work something out. Agree on 100 and then put “Max occupancy 100” on the wall.

    If they were holding performances or some other use where patrons had a great need for ADA, then they should upfit.

    Generally speaking, however, gymnastic students have at least average mobility. And their parents have about the same mobility as they would if they were shopping at a mercantile establishment in the same spot.

  2. Joe

     /  February 27, 2012

    As someone who has signed many a commercial lease, I fail to understand how the town could “cancel” a lease. There must be some pretty unusual language in those leases, because from my experience, unless the building is condemned, a landlord generally cannot “cancel” a lease. Perhaps the mold problem was bad enough that the building has been condemned, and it just hasn’t been reported anywhere…?

    And on the other end, we have the friendly fire department, costing every small business needless piles of money for some of the most bizarre, overwrought, and arbitrary fire codes I’ve ever seen.

    And who says Chapel Hill isn’t business friendly?

    On a more serious note, I sincerely hope that Mr. Bassett is involved in getting this problem solved, especially because it is the town’s fault that this business is homeless in the first place.

  3. When we were trying to save the Lincoln Arts Center facility we looked at the Homestead building. I knew Parks and Rec had looked at converting the building for other purposes over the years.

    I recall seeing more than one reference over the last decade to repairing systemic issues at the facility but don’t recall any mention of asbestos. I do know the Town has (or at least had) a special CIP reserve fund for managing extraordinary maintenance – like asbestos removal. Given the fiscal hoop jumping the Council authorized the last few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if that fund is depleted.

    The lease payments were supposed to be sequestered for repair of issues. Found this 2003 memo highlighting that (I seem to recall a similar discussion circa 1999-2000).

    “We believe that the building and surrounding grounds require an immediate expenditure of about $18,000-20,000 to pay for an overhaul of the building that would include painting, replacement and extension of drainage improvements including some grading, stormwater improvements, replacement of doors and windows, increased ventilation, roof repair, replacement of some wood, and septic upgrades. In the future we anticipate the need to replace the siding, additional grounds improvements, and the addition of air conditioning. We would come back to the Council in the spring or early summer with recommendations for a preliminary renovation project and funding.”

    From my quick review of expenditures in the subsequent 9 years, it’s not clear how much – if any – of those lease payments went to rehabilitating known issues.

  4. John Kramer

     /  February 27, 2012

    Sad but not surprising. If i were them I would have an architect check the fire departments code interpretation. in my two experiences with them they were wrong.

  5. Fred Black

     /  February 27, 2012

    Isn’t it worth mentioning that the codes for assembly use are not Chapel Hill’s but state and federal codes?

  6. Mark Peters

     /  February 27, 2012

    Fred, I had read that and was aware of it. That is why I was asking the question. It could be a simple matter of someone assuming it is a gymnastics performance use versus a gymnastics instruction use when they were looking it up in the code. Maybe there is a code categorization that is a more appropriate designation given the planned use.

    If there were currently 900+ bleacher seats in the space, then I could see the chosen designation. Even in that case, if the owners were to agree to a smaller occupancy, then they could remove some of those bleachers.

  7. Anita Badrock

     /  February 27, 2012

    Do we have a maintenance plan and funding for town owned buildings? Most private commercial entities have a capital reserve fund (and replacement schedule) and an ongoing maintenance plan that they fund from a portion of the monthly rents. Do we have those plans for our public buildings? Just wondering.

  8. Mark Peters

     /  February 27, 2012

    More info on code aspect –

    Looks pretty onerous. A business owner’s worst nightmare.

  9. Philip

     /  February 28, 2012

    For what it’s worth, this would not be the only gymnastics business in town. Chapel Hill Gymnastics has recently opened on Eubanks Road. My daughter attends their sister school in Durham, Bull City Gymnastics. They’re wonderful. We also used to go to Sport-Art. Really nice people there but few clientele. I kept wondering if/when it would close.

  10. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 28, 2012

    Southern Village also has the TumbleGym, which operates in a retail space that was a bookstore. I wonder if TumbleGym was classified differently by the fire inspector, or if it was a different individual who used his/her discretion to require facilities for 1,000 for Sport Art.

    Ironically, when the old Kerr Drug space was used as a J Crew pop-up store, it looked like there actually were 1,000 people in there, without any complaint from the authorities.

  11. Joe

     /  February 28, 2012

    I hope that this incident sheds a bit of light on what small business owners have to deal with with the fire department. We really need some kind of appeal process and/or some way to override the fire department’s decisions when they make no sense and/or are prohibitively expensive.

    In this case, we have a spot that used to be a large store and pharmacy, selling all kinds of things: flammable things, poisonous things, illegal things, etc. Now, it’s being used by children to tumble around on mats, and the fire department is demanding spending tens of thousands of dollars in extra exits and tends of thousands of dollars in bathroom upfits, etc. It’s insane. It’s really insane.

    If the town wants to be more “business friendly”, then one thing they can do is to rein in a fire department that is out of control, and is damaging our businesses for no good reason.

  12. Fred Black

     /  February 28, 2012

    The code for mercantile use is not the same as for assembly use. The requirements of the State of NC Building Code (2009), Section 3406.1 is the issue:

    “Conformance- No change shall be made in the use or occupancy of any building that would place the building in a different division of the same group of occupancy, or in a different group of occupancies, unless such building is made to comply with the requirements of this code for such division or group of occupancy. Subject to the approval of the local Building Official, the use or occupancy of existing building shall be permitted to be changed and the building is allowed to be occupied for purposes in other groups without conforming to all the requirements of this code, provided the new or proposed use is less hazardous, based on life and fire risk, than the existing use.” (Courtesy of the CHN)

    JCrew was mercantile use . Kerr Drugs was mercantile use.

  13. Joe

     /  February 28, 2012

    “Subject to the approval of the local Building Official”

    This is something that the town could fix if they wanted to. In this case, they’re choosing not to. The town is saying that a room full of children rolling around on mats is “is [more] hazardous, based on life and fire risk” than Kerr Drug. This is ridiculous.

  14. Fred Black

     /  February 28, 2012

    Joe, I think the rest of that sentence is important.

  15. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 28, 2012

    That’s logical, alright: 40 children and instructors is more risky than the existing use of sitting empty.

    But how are closely packed tables piled with textiles, surrounded by crowds of avid shoppers, with the exits and entrances closely limited by guards, “less hazardous based on life and fire risk?” Why is crowded mercantile use defined as less risky than distinctly uncrowded gymnastics instruction?

  16. John Kramer

     /  February 28, 2012

    uhh folks, this is why a professional architect should be consulted. ahem.

  17. Joe

     /  February 28, 2012

    “Subject to the approval of the local Building Official, the use or occupancy of existing building shall be permitted to be changed and the building is allowed to be occupied for purposes in other groups without conforming to all the requirements of this code, provided the new or proposed use is less hazardous, based on life and fire risk, than the existing use.”

    Fred, unless I’m misunderstanding, this sentence specifically says the local planning/inspections/fire can make the final call based on the inherent danger of the use, regardless of the code. Am I missing something?

    Are you suggesting that a child’s gymnastics business is a more hazardous “life and fire risk” than a retail business?

  18. Fred Black

     /  February 28, 2012

    Suggest reading th CHN piece on the process that the parties are engaged in:

  19. John

     /  February 28, 2012

    Fred: Thanks for taking the time to understand the facts of this issue rather than making errant statements based on assumptions and misunderstanding of the details.

  20. Any bets on how long it will be before the Town suggests selling off the Homestead property instead of rehabilitating it?

    Given the fiscal mess the Town is in – having drawn down all the reserves, used about every one-trick pony, accumulated enough debt to place AAA rating in jeopardy and facing a slew of new expenditures (Library for one) – cashing in on this valuable asset must have some appeal to Council.