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You Asked: Are there structural problems at the Plaza Apartments?

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Rumors on social media about structural concerns at a Southeast Boise apartment complex have been swirling since last summer.

To find out more, BoiseDev requested years of records from the City of Boise on the property’s history of work to shore up water-damaged beams in its underground parking garage, reviewed fire code correction notices from the Boise Fire Department, and toured the property with owner Ken Howell. Records and interviews show the project has been plagued by ongoing water leaks into the parking garage below the 63-unit apartment complex for at least 15 years, forcing extensive repairs to structural beams supporting the complex’s central plaza.

A portion of the parking garage remained closed to residents for the past year due to missing ceiling sheetrock from water leaks property management company Parklane is still in the process of repairing. 

The building was declared a “dangerous building” by the City of Boise in 2007 after a beam in the ceiling of the parking garage sheared, but it has since had multiple rounds of structural repairs and measures in place to shore up the building. It is currently deemed safe by structural engineers, both those hired by Parklane and those contracted by the City of Boise’s building department to inspect their work. 

Howell, owner, and developer of the Plaza Apartments said the building has stood the test of time despite the water leakage and numerous repair efforts.

“The beams have done amazingly well,” Howell said. “They’ve had sometimes water dripping on them occasionally for years, and finally, it gets to the point where we have to do something about it. We’ve replaced a dozen (beams) maybe, something like that.”

Parklane also hit the headlines in recent years when the elevator went down for months at a time at the Idanha, which offers restricted rents to low-income tenants. Idanha tenant Ahniah Selene, who uses a wheelchair, filed suit against Parklane in federal court because the lack of a reliable elevator frequently trapped him in his apartment or made it difficult to return. The case was settled for an unknown amount. 

Leaks stem from construction design 

The leaking goes back to the mid-1980s when the project was built. 

The Plaza Apartments have a unique design where the multi-story apartments and the courtyard in the center of the v-shaped complex sit on top of a partially underground parking garage. The project’s original design called for the top of the parking garage to be constructed out of a concrete slab, but the plan changed mid-construction to a wood-topped design for the garage.

The wood decking on top of the parking garage created the central problem plaguing the building: Water leaks. This material is more porous and prone to pinhole leaks than concrete, allowing water to leak through from the grassy courtyard through small holes down into the parking garage, slowly eating away the beams holding up the plaza above. Boise Building Official Jason Blais called the change to a wood deck for the garage a “major mistake” in the design.

The wooden ceiling of the Plaza Apartments. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Howell said he cannot remember why he chose to alter the building’s design due to how long ago it was constructed, but he said it “may have had something to do with cost.” Nevertheless, he said he doesn’t regret the change even after decades of water leakage issues.

“We would have worse problems because concrete has rebar in it, and if water gets in, it rusts the rebar, and you have structural problems you can’t fix,” Howell said.

Blais, a building official with the City of Boise, said the building has been declared safe and sound after structural repairs by several different engineers, and another round of sealant applied to help stop leaks goes a long way. But, he said the nature of the building means Parklane needs to be vigilant going forward. 

“To me, the key thing here is Parklane needs to keep monitoring this,” he said. “They need to keep looking for water damage on the sheetrock, and if they start seeing that again, they need to get an engineer to poke their head up (into the ceiling of the garage). It is important to continually monitor and keep checking on it.”

Years of work after “dangerous building” status 

These problems collided in 2007 when a beam in the parking garage sheared, which brought in city inspectors and engineers to study the building. 

One of the main structural beams underpinning the plaza developed a crack through the beam, although it did not completely break, Blais recalled. He said it was severe enough to be considered a structural failure.

City building officials were deeply concerned that the entire building was compromised and could endanger residents if the damage was not repaired. The city ordered Parklane to remove the sheetrock from the ceiling to find the extent of the damage to the building, shore up the building immediately, get an engineer to sign off on the building’s safety, and set a timeline to address the issue of water leaking into the garage. 

“It is believed by this department that the damage observed could consequently cause a collapse of the building above,” the 2007 plan review permit for the work said. 

Blais told BoiseDev that as engineers and Parklane continued to work on the building, they discovered more and more issues stemming from the leaking water, requiring years of work to replace beams and address the water leakage with sealant. A 2011 letter from Core Engineering to Parklane included in the Plaza Apartments building permit files identifies “several joists which have been rotted or been damaged, so they no longer provide adequate support.”

An engineer finally signed off, saying the issue was resolved in 2012, several years after the sheared beam was discovered and the other structural issues stemming from water damage were uncovered. 

Howell said he doesn’t recall why the building permit was open for five years, how many beams were eventually replaced, or who worked on the project. He said part of the work to address the problem during this period involved ripping out all of the trees in the Plaza and putting down more sealant around the edges where the planters used to be to address the leaks.

But, even with “periodic” resealing of the plaza surface over the years, Howell said it still hasn’t been an effective way to stop the water from finding tiny cracks in the wooden deck, moving along flat surfaces under the ceiling, and dripping down onto the wooden beams supporting the building. His next move is to rip out all of the sheetrock ceiling in the parking garage and replace it with a network of fire sprinklers to meet fire code.

“I’m motivated to do that because, one, we can see the leaks easier, and it ends the cycle of the wet drywall, work to replace drywall, and so on,” Howell said.

Blais said that the building was shored up as soon as the damage was discovered in 2007 and cleared by multiple engineers to allow it to remain occupied over that multiple-year construction period. 

“We have a lot of buildings that have damage that can be repaired over time, and all or a portion of it can be occupied,” Blais told BoiseDev. “We just have to evaluate and make that call.”

More problems a decade later 

The water leaks came back to cause problems ten years down the line.

In the summer of 2017, Parklane employee Mike Tranmer sent an email to the city informing fire inspectors that repairs to water-damaged sheetrock in the parking garage were underway. A year later, in August 2018, Parklane received a correction notice from the Boise Fire Department.

Blais told BoiseDev more structural damage due to leaking water was discovered in the garage in 2018. This kicked off several more years of shoring and repairs to make the building safe. An email from the end of 2019 to the city’s building department showed it took a year and a half to get a design for the new beams and other structural fixes to the building, and a permit for the work was submitted in January 2020. 

Howell admitted Parklane was “tardy” in addressing the problem, but the building was always safe because of additional supports installed to shore up the water-weakened wooden beams.

“We had a contractor who was going to do the work and didn’t do the work, and then we actually brought that in-house, I think, although we may have had some steel contractors subcontract part of it,” he said, remembering back on the project. “Always when we do these things, we have temporary shoring and all of that. It’s not a structural issue.”

The structural improvements to repair the beams were completed in late summer of 2020, but repairs to the water-damaged sheetrock and another round of sealant to prevent leaks dragged on. The cool and wet weather this spring meant more delays on the final fixes, and the building permit remains open, Blais said. 

Howell said he regrets the delay in replacing the sheetrock and resealing the plaza’s surface because it alarmed residents. And without sheetrock in the ceiling to buffer the garage from the residences upstairs in case of a fire, the city ordered several parking spaces in the garage closed off.

“We probably should have just done it because the building department came through, and they looked very closely,” he said. “We had to have a dozen or more parking spaces roped off. When I finally got down here to take a look at that I thought ‘Oh no, anybody who saw all of this would think what is going on? What is going to fall on my head?’. Of course, nothing, but that was the perception, perhaps.”

The missing sheetrock drew the ire of Boise Fire Department Inspector Joel Damron last summer. He sent several emails to the building department raising concerns about the Plaza Apartments throughout July 2021 and ordered Parklane to close portions of the parking garage where the sheetrock is missing. 

A new beam in the Plaza Apartments garage supported by steel poles. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

On July 13, 2021, Ken Howell sent an email to Blais calling Damron’s inspections and behavior concerning the Plaza Apartments “overzealous” and requested help to rein him in. 

“It looks as if Joel is on a mission to save Boise from a catastrophe similar to the building collapse that just occurred in Miami,” Howell wrote, referencing the Surfside Condo collapse that killed 98 people in June 2021. “My concern is by what authority does he act? And in concert with whom? Furthermore, nothing is in writing. These are all verbal orders from Joel with no reference to codes of any sort.”

Blais wrote back, noting he had forwarded Howell’s email to Deputy Fire Chief Romeo Gervais and that “there are some items needing to be addressed” at the Plaza Apartments. He reminded Howell of the open building permit and the remaining work to be done. This work is still ongoing a year later and will be closed once Parklane installs the fire sprinklers.

When asked about Howell’s characterization of Damron as “overzealous,” Blais praised Damron’s commitment to fire safety and his tough push to keep structures safe. But, he noted that he can sometimes act without having the full context on the status of a repair or the project’s history from the building department. 

“Joel is a good fire inspector,” Blais said. “I think he has higher concerns without knowing the facts sometimes as a fire inspector, but I also feel the owner, Ken Howell, sometimes underestimates what we’re asking for, and we need to push him sometimes to get him going. It’s a mix of a little of both.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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