By Tim Kelly
The Association of Owners of the Gardens Plaza Condominium held its Board of Directors’ meeting yesterday, its first since a standpipe failure on January 9 caused significant water damage to the building and many of its units.
As a result of the failure, the building was evacuated and its certificate of occupancy was suspended by Ocean City construction and code enforcement until repairs are completed to assure the safety of residents.
The meeting, held in the auditorium of the Ocean City Tabernacle, was attended by approximately 80 people.
As a private association conducting a private meeting, the Board politely declined media coverage by reporters, including one representing OCNJDaily. However, General Manager Dave Bennett discussed some topics of discussion in general terms.
Bennett said it is premature to say when owners would be permitted to return to their units, although the original three-month estimate, stated in mid-January, was still on the table. That would mean a mid-April return if all proceeds as planned, he said.
The 45-year-old, 16 story building contains 183 units. The standpipe failure occurred at 1:45 a.m. in the north stair tower, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water into the stairwell. The water spread southward on all the floors to varying degrees, as it made its way down the stairwell.
The elevator shafts in the middle of the building took a large portion of the water, preventing its spread to many units on the south side. About 70 units suffered varying degrees of damage, mostly on the north side.
It was discovered only when the water crashed through a ceiling tile in the building’s first floor lobby and the security guard on duty immediately called 9-1-1. The approximately 30 fulltime residents in the building at the time were asked to evacuate. Some of the residents initially stayed with family and friends, while others were relocated temporarily to the Port-o-Call Hotel.
In the days immediately following the incident, year-round residents found winter rentals or long-term stays at area hotels to see them through the period of construction and repairs, owners said. Most owners had homeowners’ insurance which covered much, if not all of the cost of the temporary housing, they said.
Bennett and some owners contacted after the meeting said the tone of the meeting was, despite some pointed questions, very civil and cooperative.
“We bought into a community and we must live as a community,” said Lisa McDonald, an owner and former Board President.
“It’s a great idea for us to stick together,” said one owner who declined to give his name. “The board and the staff have been working nonstop to get us back into the building.”
Bennett said the Association had already obtained city approvals for two of the three aspects required before a certificate of occupancy could be issued: the fire suppression and fire alarm systems, and the drying of the 16-story high-rise’s hallways, and its electrical systems.
What remains is approval of installation of drywall in the hallways, he said.
Bennett, who has taken only one day off since January 9, said Board President William Drayton and the other Board members were instrumental in working with the city to streamline the approvals process.
“Bill is the most qualified Board President I have worked with to deal with this type of situation, and he has been great since day one,” Bennett said. “He has consistently made the best decisions to put the processes in place to protect the association and to facilitate people getting back into their homes.”
Soon after the January 9 incident, owners were permitted into the building and their units from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day to retrieve items, assess any damage and to formulate plans for repairs and remediation.
What has yet to be sorted out, owners said, is a ruling from the building’s insurer, ICAT/Loyds, as to the amount to be paid out on the claim. Board President Drayton said in a memo to owners the building’s policy limit is in excess of $35 million. Adjuster Ken Weber of Elite Public Adjusters was on hand for the meeting, and the building has retained legal representation for its interests and those of the owners, Bennett said.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” said Bennett, who has worked in the building for 33 years. “We are working nonstop with residents, the City and the insurance companies to get the building repaired and ready for the summer season.”
Owners were encouraged to contact the City and Mayor Jay Gillian’s office to determine what permits are required for each owner’s specific remediation and construction needs, said Bennett.
“The Mayor’s representative who toured the building said he would ‘fast track’ the permitting process,” Bennett said. “I was very happy to hear this, particularly for the people whose primary residence is here, some of whom are elderly,” he added.
McDonald seemed to sum up the feelings of many of the residents.
“I know there has been heartbreak and disappointment,” she said, “and we are going to work together and rise above this situation as a community.”