Belleville sues downtown apartment complex over alleged fire code violations

A downtown Belleville apartment complex should be shut down because the owner has not installed a state-mandated fire alarm system and a fire in the complex would have a “catastrophic impact and high loss of life,” according to fire department inspection reports.

The reports, which allege multiple code violations, are attached to the city’s lawsuit filed against the owner of the Brede Towers Apartments at 104 N. High St.

Talks are underway to reach a settlement between the city and property owner, according Belleville attorney Eric Rhein, who is representing the building owner, St. Louis-based JRG Holdings–Belleville LLC. Rhein declined to comment further. Corporation records show James Mundloch is the manager of the company.

City Attorney Garrett Hoerner declined to comment on the lawsuit but Mayor Mark Eckert said the city has been “patient” with JRG Holdings.

“We tried to think about both the tenants and the ownership but they’ve got to take action on the safety and living conditions there,” Eckert said.

The lawsuit alleges the code violations are “dangerous to the lives” of the apartment complex residents.

Belleville wants a judge to order JRG Holdings to correct the alleged code violations and give the city the right to evict the tenants.

In the answer filed in response to the city’s lawsuit, Rhein said the property owner “denies that it is liable for expending the huge cost of getting all alleged deficiencies ‘up to code,’ because the building is or should be ‘grandfathered in.’”

JRG Holdings has spent $312,000 since 2010 in building repairs but admits it has not yet performed all of the repairs the city has ordered, according to Rhein’s answer.

Inspection reports

The fire department conducted inspections on Sept. 13, 2016; Sept. 7, 2017, and Oct. 29, 2018 at the complex.

The fire inspection reports include these findings:

Building should have a fire alarm system installed.

No fire extinguishers were found during inspections in 2017 and last year.

Smoke alarms should be installed in each unit and the alarms should be hardwired.

The “aluminized plastic dryer hose” should be replaced by rigid ducting. Also, the hose should be regularly cleaned and this work should be documented.

The paneling on the corridor walls of the center section of the complex should be removed to expose a non-combustible finish or covered with drywall.

The room leading to the emergency escape window and ladder shall be marked as “emergency escape ladder access” and shall not be used for laundry or storage and shall not be locked to prevent access.

A May 1 status conference is scheduled on the lawsuit, which was filed in November.

Former school and hotel

Long before the Brede Towers Apartments complex opened, the site featured school classes and hotels.

The complex has two main buildings.

The three-story, brick building on the south side of the complex at the corner of North High and East A streets was built about 1849, according to Bob Brunkow, historian for the Belleville Historical Society.

The Odd Fellows fraternal group was the original owner but quickly sold the building to the Belleville Literary Society, which rented out rooms for public and private school classes in the 1850s, Brunkow said.

In 1868, the Metropolitan Hotel opened and later it was called the Lincoln Hotel.

The brick building on the north side complex was built sometime after 1917, Brunkow said.

For many years, the first floor space at the corner of North High and East A streets featured the former Lincoln Jug restaurant and now it is the home of the Casa Maria Mexican Grill at 100 N. High St.

The city’s lawsuit only cites the apartment complex at 104 N. High St.

Mike Koziatek joined the Belleville News-Democrat in 1998 as an assistant editor and is now a reporter covering the Belleville area. He graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee and grew up in St. Louis.