Demolition or repair? What we know about Waukesha's troubled condo and what lies ahead for its displaced residents

·6 min read

WAUKESHA - A condominium building, now vacant but still in desperate need of repairs, remains an uncertain fixture on West Avenue days after its residents were forced out in a rush.

That leaves the residents themselves wondering where they will live and, in the case of resident owners, how they will be compensated.

It's all tied to an emergency evacuation late Dec. 2, when the Waukesha Fire Department ordered residents out, based on engineering reports indicating that the Horizon West Condominium at 315 N. West Ave. was in "imminent danger" of collapsing.

A Dec. 3 news conference revealed new information about the status of the building, and the American Red Cross shortly thereafter updated its efforts to house dozens of residents while everything gets sorted out.

Here's what we know about the situation as of Dec. 6:

The building had a history of problems

According to city officials, the building was constructed in 1966. Records were not immediately available concerning the builder or whether the high-rise featured any unique construction elements.

Much of that background may be uncovered through detailed records as city officials consider what lies ahead for the building. But the basics are no mystery.

The six-story complex includes 48 units, many owner occupied, and is managed by the Horizon West Condominium Association. Records do not clearly indicate whether the building was always used for owner-occupied condo units or whether it was built as renter-occupied apartments at one time.

For decades, the condos, built along a stretch of West Avenue consisting mostly of century-old single-family homes, caused few concerns. But that changed in 2019.

A June 2019 storm with straight-line winds that tore through central Waukesha, knocking down power poles and trees and damaging property in and around Carroll University, blew off the soffits on part of the building's exterior, city officials said. The damage itself wasn't a factor in later problems, but it revealed deeper concerns: potential problems in the structure that required further investigation. It only got worse.

"It's kind of a bad analogy, but like an onion that's peeled back, we kept finding more and more problems," Fire Chief Steve Howard said at the news conference.

In an accompanying news release, city officials outlined what happened from that point on:

  • In June 2020, the city fielded resident complaints about the conditions of the balconies at the building. As a result, residents were told they couldn't use the balconies, and, correspondingly, the city ordered the condo association to fix the balcony safety problem and conduct an engineering analysis that would have to be filed with the city.

  • In 2020 and 2021, the fire department conducted additional inspections, while contractors hired by the association dealt with the problem.

  • On Sept. 21, as the balconies' condition grew worse and debris began falling to the ground, the city ordered a fence to be installed around the building to keep people away from the danger zone.

  • In October, workers began removing the balconies outright. That, in turn, "revealed deficiencies of the structural frame of the building as well as the structural columns," the city said, resulting in ongoing inspections through November.

  • On Nov. 30, a preliminary structural report by an independent structural engineer revealed deficiencies in the load-bearing structure of the building. That prompted the city to begin discussing what the next step should be.

The situation soon reached a crisis stage.

When was the evacuation?

The decision to evacuate the building came swiftly for fire officials as well as residents on Thursday, Dec. 2 beginning at about 4:30 p.m.

According to the building's "engineer of record," a column that had been supporting the structure's frame was no longer properly braced, Howard recalled during the news conference. That meant he had to act quickly to safeguard people.

That process involved calling in off-duty police and firefighters to assist and formulate an evacuation plan.

The Waukesha Fire Department evacuates of the 48-unit Horizon West Condominium Building at 315 N. West Avenue on Thursday, Dec. 2.
The Waukesha Fire Department evacuates of the 48-unit Horizon West Condominium Building at 315 N. West Avenue on Thursday, Dec. 2.

By early evening, those public safety crews were ready to clear out the building, but for residents inside, it seemed even more abrupt. City officials acknowledged residents' claims that they were given only 15 minutes to clear out.

By midday Friday, contractors had made stopgap repairs to lessen the emergency.

"Right now, the building has been temporarily shored, which takes away the immediate threat of collapse," Howard said. In addition to opening West Avenue to traffic again, those repairs also allowed residents to go in to remove necessities and valuables.

Residents have been allowed to return for short periods and in small numbers to remove items. No major moves have been permitted at this point.

What happened to the residents?

In all, 65 residents were evacuated Dec. 2. Most initially sheltered at Baymont Inn & Suites off Main Street and Moreland Boulevard, on Waukesha's east side, thanks to assistance by the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army of Waukesha County.

At his temporary lodging inside the Baymont Inn & Suites in Waukesha, Tim Noster picks up a package of socks and sorts through the items donated by the local FedEx office. Noster and his roommate John Tankersley were among the 65 residents evacuated suddenly from a structurally failing condo building at 315 N. West Ave., on Thursday, Dec. 2.
At his temporary lodging inside the Baymont Inn & Suites in Waukesha, Tim Noster picks up a package of socks and sorts through the items donated by the local FedEx office. Noster and his roommate John Tankersley were among the 65 residents evacuated suddenly from a structurally failing condo building at 315 N. West Ave., on Thursday, Dec. 2.

Most who still need housing are staying in a shelter at Elmbrook Church, where officials from the American Red Cross continue to provide assistance and evaluate their needs.

"At the shelter, our teams will have meals, health/mental health resources, and safe, comfortable confines for any residents who need a place to stay for the near-term," said Justin Kern, communications director at the American Red Cross of Wisconsin. "We'll also begin conversations with evacuated people on the next steps in their recovery."

Some residents have insurance that will allow them to stay at hotels. Others have made arrangements with friends or family members, Kern said.

Because the condominium building is mostly owner-occupied, residents have a financial stake in what happens. They are ultimately responsible for all costs incurred on building maintenance.

What will happen to the building?

That's not immediately clear.

The makeshift shoring of the condo's structural elements only removed the immediate threat of collapse. As Howard said during the Dec. 3 news conference, the future is another matter.

The condo association "has a lot to look at and consider," Howard said. "It's one of those situations where anything can be fixed. But does it make economic sense?"

City officials have not addressed what might happen if the residents decide not to repair or rebuild the complex. The possibilities include the demolition of the property, either by the property owners or by the city if the property is relinquished, and sale of the land to a developer.

The most significant development near the condo complex was directly across the street, at a subdivision that is now newer single-family and a few multi-tenant homes on land that was once home to the Waukesha YWCA.

The property is also near Carroll University, which has sometimes obtained properties that surround the college for student housing or other purposes.

Contact Jim Riccioli at (262) 446-6635 or james.riccioli@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jariccioli.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha condo evacuation: What we know building, residents' future

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