July 16, 2013 in City

Fire puts WSU students in bind

Blaze destroyed 88 units, displacing about 200
By The Spokesman-Review
 

PULLMAN – Around 200 Washington State University students must look for new housing before fall term after a massive fire destroyed four apartment buildings set to open soon.

The Sunday morning blaze, labeled suspicious by fire officials, incinerated 88 units at the Grove apartment complex on the north end of town. The completed buildings would have had a value close to $13 million, according to city building permits.

The investigation into the fire’s cause involves Pullman firefighters and police officers, WSU Police and an officer with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In addition, a Spokane Valley Fire Department dog trained in detecting signs of arson will arrive on the scene today to assist, said Pullman fire prevention officer Rich Dragoo, the lead investigator.

The dog also was used in a string of arsons on the WSU campus in May 2012, although officials said they do not believe Sunday’s fire is connected to those crimes.

The fire hit five weeks before fall classes begin, and students who signed leases for the units that burned are hunting for other accommodations.

“I don’t think we’re going to have people pitching tents, but there is going to be pressure on housing,” said Eileen Macoll, president of the Whitman County Landlord-Tenant Association.

“This is going to put probably 200 young people in a scramble for housing. I think the shock is still probably just setting in, and as so many young people travel during the summer, they may not even be aware of their situation as yet,” Macoll said. “I certainly feel for them.”

Campus Crest Communities Inc., the Charlotte, N.C.-based owner of the Grove, said through a spokesman Monday, “We are confident we will be able to provide alternative housing accommodations for all affected residents.”

WSU offered to work with Campus Crest to help students find other places to live, said Terry Boston, assistant vice president for student affairs and enrollment. That could include some space in on-campus residence halls, he said. WSU has limited space in the 974 apartment units it owns, Boston said.

After speaking Monday with a company representative, Boston said he was sure “we’re not going to be in a situation where a student is going to be without housing.”

Firefighters stopped the 3 a.m. fire from spreading to four other Grove apartment buildings under construction, and construction crews resumed work on those buildings Monday. Campus Crest, which develops and operates student housing in 27 states, said it doesn’t know if those apartments can be finished in time for fall classes.

“While there is a chance portions of the property will be ready to house residents for the start of the academic year, we have plans in place to provide alternative housing accommodations for all residents,” said Jason Chudoba of ICR Inc., a New York City-based corporate relations firm hired by Campus Crest.

The project is planned as a 374-unit development, and based on the number of bedrooms proposed, the developer estimated more than 1,000 tenants in all, according to Pullman city records.

Campus Crest was building 216 units in 10 buildings in the first phase and planned another 158 units in the second. For the first phase, just off Terre View Drive, the city has issued building permits with an estimated value of more than $30 million.

The fire razed two 32-unit buildings, a 16-unit building and an eight-unit clubhouse. The fire also destroyed three pieces of construction equipment and damaged 12 others, and the heat melted vinyl siding at two nearby apartment complexes.

Company representatives were in Pullman to assess the damage and speak with fire investigators Monday.

“Once our assessment and the ongoing investigation by the local authorities are complete, we will be in a better position to share details regarding a timeline for the property’s opening,” Chudoba said.

He said the top priority for Campus Crest is to ensure its tenants are well taken care of. “We plan to communicate our housing plans with residents in the next few days,” he added.

Macoll said the landlord-tenant association was updating its website to offer students resources on housing options. She said there should be enough available rentals in Pullman to meet student needs.

“My gut feeling is that there is going to be some scrambling for housing. It’s not going to be a big emergency, but it is going to be a challenge for those who will need to find housing,” she said. The multifamily housing vacancy rate in Pullman is 2.6 percent, according to a recent survey by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.

The fire department is looking into why two hydrants on the property were not working Sunday, Fire Chief Mike Heston said. Firefighters also could not approach other hydrants at the complex due to the intensity of the heat, and construction officials said additional hydrants were scheduled to come on line Monday.


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