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‘Malicious, arbitrary:’ Owner of historic downtown building steps up fight with Boise

The owner of the historic Union Block building in downtown Boise is suing the city and two employees over its closure.

Ken Howell, a Boise developer and owner of Parklane Management Co., which leases apartments, offices and retail space downtown, sued Jan. 22 in the U.S. District Court in Boise alleging the city and its employees acted “maliciously and arbitrarily” when they condemned the building at 730 W. Idaho St. on Nov. 9 over structural safety concerns.

Union Block Associates, an Idaho company formed by Howell in 1995 to own and develop the Union Block building, is also a plaintiff, although its filing status with the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office was changed Dec. 16 to inactive-dissolved.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the loss of tenants, reputational harm to Howell, Union Block Associates and the building, which “will continue to be regarded as a dangerous building, thereby lowering the market value.”

It also seeks payment for expenses incurred defending any litigation filed by the building’s tenants. The lawsuit said tenants have threatened legal action against Howell and his company for breaching obligations outlined in their lease agreements.

The city has declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Businesses vacate the building

Since the closure, two restaurants that occupied the building were forced to vacate. Moon’s Kitchen, a popular breakfast spot, moved into a space on the second-floor of the Zions Bank building. Mai Thai, an Asian-fusion restaurant, is filling takeout and delivery orders from a kitchen in Meridian.

Balsam Brands, an artificial Christmas tree retailer, was also housed along the building’s street frontage and had to vacate during peak holiday season, the lawsuit notes.

Along with the city, two city employees are named as defendants: Tim Keane, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services department; and Carl Madsen, the city’s assistant building official. Both were instrumental in the city’s decision to close the building until Howell makes certain repairs.

The lawsuit says Keane directed Madsen to issue the notice and order in November that deemed the Union Block a “dangerous building” in violation of city code. The order cited several provisions of the code, including when any portion of a structure is “likely to fail, or become dislodged or to collapse” and “has wracked, warped, buckled or settled to such an extent that the walls or other structural portions have materially less resistance to winds or earthquakes.”

A notice posted to the door of Moon’s Kitchen in downtown Boise in November said “Do not enter. Unsafe to occupy.”
A notice posted to the door of Moon’s Kitchen in downtown Boise in November said “Do not enter. Unsafe to occupy.”

It gave Howell 30 days to get permits for the work needed to stabilize the building and another 30 days to complete the fixes.

Keane told reporters in November outside City Hall that the speed at which the building can be reopened is fully dependent on Howell. “If the owner is able to bring us plans that show this building will be stabilized in a certain manner tomorrow, we will review it tomorrow,” Keane said.

But the complaint alleges Howell applied for the necessary permits within 30 days of the order being issued, and that the city took another 30 days to issue the permits, “making it impossible to complete the work requested in the mandated 60-day period.” The order said that if the work is not completed by the end of the 60-day period, the city can take over and bill Howell for the costs to make the building structurally sound again.

Owner files appeal

In addition to the lawsuit, Howell also filed an appeal to the Boise City Council. But he did not attend the council’s Jan. 30 public hearing, where Keane attested to his department’s concerns with the building.

Jason Blais, the city’s chief building official, also gave a presentation that detailed numerous issues with the Union Block stemming from a years-long project to construct a new basement floor that’s been plagued by delays. The presentation included over a dozen photos of large cracks, crumbling facade and temporary shoring posts that appeared to bow under the weight of the building.

The council voted unanimously to deny Howell’s request to rescind the condemnation order. Howell told the Idaho Statesman the following day that he disagreed with the appeal process.

“We didn’t feel that there was any productive outcome that would come from a presentation-style hearing to hear our case,” he said.

The lawsuit says Howell and Union Block Associates were led by the city attorney’s office to believe that their appeal would be heard by the city’s Building Code Board of Appeals, per the 1997 code for abatement of dangerous buildings, in a manner that “assured protection” of their “due process rights.” It accuses the city of substantially delaying the appeal.

Keane is soon leaving Boise. The city announced Feb. 15 that Keane accepted a job overseeing the planning and development services department at the city of Calgary, the largest city in the Canadian province of Alberta. His last day with Boise is March 8.

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