Uncle Bill’s Appeal of the Fire Department Condemnation

As background, Bill Sanigular owns a building at the corner of Sheridan and Plymouth Avenues where a neighborhood grocery store called “Uncle Bill’s Food Market” used to be located. In late 2004, Sanigular gave up management of the store. He leased the space to Ali Hassan Meshjell.

In April 2007, there was a shooting two blocks away. Some neighborhood residents blamed it on the kind of people who frequented Uncle Bill’s. At the 1200 Upton block club meeting on May 3, 2007, city officials including Mayor Rybak and Council Member Don Samuels demanded that the building that housed Uncle Bill’s store be condemned. City staff promised to comply. On Tuesday, May 9, 2007, a placard of condemnation was posted on two entrances to the building. It had to be vacated by May 31st.

Larger rental properties in Minneapolis are inspected by the Fire Department. The Fire Department did a complete inspection of Sanigular’s building in the summer of 2006. Repairs requested by the city cost him over $25,000. This caused Sanigular to fall behind on his mortgage payments. At the end of July, the fire inspectors said they were satisfied with the work.

But then, in January, 2007, a different set of Fire Department inspectors came by to do a new inspection. It was now alleged that the building had sagging floor joists and cracks in the structure. Sanigular worked on the project as best he could until the fateful block club meeting and the condemnation several days later. He appealed the condemnation to the Minneapolis Fire Code Appeals Board. The appeal was heard in the Fire Department offices in City Hall on Tuesday, July 24.

Bill Sanigular tipped off a reporter for the Watchdog newspaper (me) that this meeting would be held. I opened the door to the conference room and sat down in an empty chair near the door. The presiding official, assistant chief Dave DeWall, asked me what I was doing. I said I was with the Watchdog newspaper and would observe the meeting. DeWall then said it was a private meeting. I had to leave. I said that if I did leave, I would march straight to Mayor Rybak’s office and get a clarification of the city’s open-meeting policy.

This seemed to throw a wrinkle into the situation. Calling a recess of the meeting, DeWall rose from his chair. Ten minutes later, he returned. I could remain at the meeting, he said, but not participate. I said I had no intention of participating. There were no further problems involving me.

Bill Sanigular and his wife, Jean, were sitting at one end of the table across from Deputy Chief DeWall and several other Fire Department officials. Sanigular was trying to argue that his building was stable. He had spent $650 to fix the garage, $285 for a new steel door, $889 on the front and back doors, etc. He said he didn’t think there were any structural problems. A structural engineer had said there was nothing wrong with the building. It was not going to fall down in the near future.

Sanigular then raised several points that seemed to be a rather delusional appeal for sympathy. Some inspectors had said they would kick in his doors. I’m “a foreigner” (from Africa), Sanigular said, but “we’re all human beings.” There was “no trouble on my record”. He was “never on welfare”. If the city was giving the owner of the adjacent building (which was in much worse shape)a chance to make repairs, why couldn’t he have the same opportunity? “If I fix one thing”, Sanigular observed, “the inspectors come back and then ask me to fix several other things.”

A city inspector in 2006 had said the building was OK. Now the city was saying he “had to fix such and such”. He had spent $25,000 on city-ordered repairs. Where could he find an affordable lawyer?, Sanigular asked.

Inspector Jim Dahl said that the latest orders had been given in February. There were “twenty points of contact” between the city and Sanigular, yet no action was taken to engage the services of a structural engineer until a few days before the two parties went to court. No structural report had yet been issued.

Chief De Wall said he was not disputing the fact that Sanigular had spent some money in complying with city work orders. His main concern was from a structural standpoint. The city needed a report from a certified structural engineer who would say that the building was structurally sound.

He also commented that inspectors had noticed that some work had been done in several places but no permits had been pulled. It was necessary to pull permits and have an inspector examine the work to see that it was done properly. The work had to be up to city code.

Inspector Dahl referred to Sanigular’s comment that the building was structurally sound. It would not fall down in the next fifty years. Yes, he said, but what would happen during a fire? They had to be sure that structural weaknesses in the building would not endanger fire fighters’ lives.

The issue, said De Wall, was the lack of a report from a certified structural engineer. He did not see a reason why, even though the building was condemned, Sanigular could not engage the services of a structural engineer who could look at the building and see whether Sanigular was able to address the city’s concerns. You can’t “occupy a condemned building,”, he said, “but we’re still allowing you to fix the problems.”

Sanigular noted that he had already paid money to a structural engineer. Yes, there was an engineer at the meeting before their appointment in court; but he said he had not yet issued a report. It might take three weeks or so to do it. And that was several months ago.

Not just any structural engineer’s report would do. The city needed an engineer and perhaps a certified architect, as well, to look at the particular issues that inspectors had raised and attest to the fact that those concerns were adequately addressed. Moreover, the work had to be done by a city-licensed contractor. Permits had to be pulled.

Once this was done and Sanigular gave the Fire Department the structural engineer’s report certifying that the building met all the required conditions, then Fire Department officials would turn the matter over to the Building Inspections department - to a Pat Higgins - who would review the entire package and decide whether the condemnation might be lifted. There were no guarantees that he would decide to do that, however.

The conclusion reached at this meeting was that, unless or until Bill Sanigular produced the structural engineer’s report, the Minneapolis Fire Code Appeals Board would be compelled to deny his appeal of the building condemnation. Sanigular received a letter to that effect dated July 26, 2007. The letter noted that the Appeals Board had heard his appeal even though it was received two months after the fifteen day appeal deadline.

Bottom line was this: “The board denied your appeal and requires that the requested report be submitted to this department before the orders can be abated. It was suggested that you contact Dan Niziolek in the Problem Properties Unit (otherwise known as the “Political Games Department” - ed.) of the Minneapolis Department of Regulatory Services to determine any other requirements that may be needed to be addressed prior to reoccupying the building.”

I left the July 26th meeting as Bill Sanigular, looking rather dejected, was slumped over in his wheel chair. Here was a man who had come to the United States as a student in the 1960s and had worked for Cream-of-Wheat for twenty years before deciding to pursue the “American dream” and become an independent business owner.

He had operated a neighborhood grocery store between 1987 and 2004 in a comparatively rough part of town while unsuccessfully trying to upgrade the operation to a deli. (“Neighbors”, led by City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, wouldn’t let him.) Nicknamed “Bill the Snitch” by some of his high-spirited young clients, some other “neighbors” were now blaming him for “tolerating” crime and letting the neighborhood run down.

The Fire Department hearing had a surrealistic air. One would think that the structure of the building was actually the issue. Nowhere else was it mentioned. A letter to the editor of City Pages, responding to a previous story about Uncle Bill’s, framed the question in these terms:

“For a good part of those 37 years (since the writer has lived in that neighborhood), the store and the building have been a blight on our community. Previous owners have exploited poor and low-income residents by charging exorbitant prices for milk and bread, short-changing children buying penny candy, selling cigarettes and blunts to underage youth, tolerating gang behavior, renting apartments to questionable tenants, turning a blind eye to prostitution and drug activities on the corner, and in general displaying a supreme disregard for nearby residents.”

Short-changing children who buy penny candy? Who could respect someone like that? I don’t. But the fact is that none of this, if it were true, has anything to do with the allegedly sagging floor joists and cracks in the structure which were never spotted before. In their nicely pressed uniforms, the Fire Department brass were demanding certified structural engineer’s reports of this diabetic man sitting in a wheel chair, scratching his head, who obviously could not afford to do much of anything more.

Sanigular had spent $25,000 in the previous summer humoring Fire Department inspectors. Then a half year later, in January, they returned for a second dip. And now, on speculation that another city department might lift the condemnation, the higher echelon of the Minneapolis Fire Department was requiring structural engineers’ and architects’ reports of this elderly, impoverished man and humanely giving him more time to comply.

And behind the Fire Department humanitarians stood the “saint-like” - if you believe the churches and foundations - City Council Member Don Samuels, chair of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee, who has worked so hard to bring “peace” to North Minneapolis in the form of closed neighborhood grocery stores.

I talked with a structural engineer who had prepared a building report for the store manager, Ali Hassan Meshjell, but it was not the report that Bill Sanigular needed to obtain a favorable verdict for his appeal of the Fire Department’s condemnation. That other report, or reports, he informed me could be quite “spendy”.

And so, money seems always to be the bottom line in our system of justice, regulatory or otherwise. The righteous have money. Small business owners in Minneapolis have none.


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