‘It’s Horrendous’ – Rebuilding Royal Dane Could Be a Lengthy Process

Firefighters navigate the flooded passageways of Royal Dane Mall early Friday morning after the fire. (Source photo by James Gardner)
Firefighters navigate the flooded passageways of Royal Dane Mall early Friday morning after the fire. (Source photo by James Gardner)

As fire officials continue to work out what caused last week’s devastating blaze in Royal Dane Mall, property owners – once allowed to access their spaces and assess the damages – also have to begin working out how to rebuild, a process that officials say could be lengthy depending on insurance, financing and necessary approvals.

Rebuilding in the historic district has to meet certain guidelines, according to Sean L. Krigger, acting director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office. The office deals primarily with major government initiatives – such as the rehabbing of Main Street, which uses federal funds – administers the Federal Historic Tax Credit for individuals who want to use it for rehabbing buildings, and can offer technical assistance and historic preservation guidance for building owners who might be reconstructing after events like fires.

While the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Committee will have more day-to-day oversight in reconstruction, it’s Krigger who can give owners a short list of what the committee will approve and advice on how their plans will or will not fit into the overall scheme of the mall. Krigger said the buildings in Royal Dane Mall are more than 200 years old. After a series of fires starting in 1803 devastated Charlotte Amalie, certain features such as alleyways were put in place to ensure total destruction doesn’t happen again.

“That’s why, when doing reconstruction, you always have to be mindful of the guidelines,” he said. “The features in the town were put in there because of actual experience in dealing with major fires and seeing what they can do.”

Keeping that in mind, after Fire Services wraps up its investigation, the mall’s property owners would have to do their own assessment of the damage and begin meeting with their insurance company – if they have insurance – to see what claims can be filed.

“Then, there’s going to have to be an analysis done by a structural engineer,” Krigger said. “They are going to have to look at the walls, for example, to see what sort of structural amending will have to be done. Those are historic warehouses and typical construction materials are fieldstones and bricks. The engineers will also have to determine what kind of structural support is needed, like columns to support new floor systems or bearings for new roof designs.”

Those analyses would go hand-in-hand with architectural plans that would then be developed for the rehabilitation of the buildings and that process is done in conjunction with the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Committee, which would have to approve plans before even a partial demolition could be done, affecting historic elements or even other structures in the area.

Committee chairman Felipe Ayala told the Source Sunday that while the approval process could be simple and done in a day, consideration of each project falls under the guidelines of what a warehouse should be. The most important thing about last week’s fire is that it “wiped the slate clean” in terms of a rebuild, which gives the committee the chance to look over newer additions like second stories that have been added on.

Understanding the features of the complex, including brick pavings, alleyways and unplastered walls, Ayala said it is possible, based on what was approved before, that the newer features could be approved, but the committee would need to know the context, and how they would fit into the property.

“We will do an assessment ourselves on the damages and when the applicant goes to rebuild, they have to present to the commission their plans with their architect to be able to start the rebuilding process,” Ayala said. “There are some guidelines that the applicant will have to follow to be in compliance with the rules that are covered within the district.”

Financing is also another consideration. Local business owner Zack Zook, who spoke with the Source this weekend, was affected by a similar fire in March. His is another historic building located near the Asfour department store downtown, and he has had to continue construction without insurance. Zook said he looked into policies before and they were expensive.

“We have had to endure a lot of out-of-pocket expenses that we weren’t prepared for,” he said. “The building was under construction at the time of the fire, so we just had to pick up the pieces and move forward.”

While Zook said the walls of the building, which dates back to 1810, are thick and strong, the building itself was in disrepair, making companies more hesitant to underwrite the cost of insurance. Meanwhile, a report on the cause of the fire still hasn’t been completed, and that was four months ago.

Once the report is complete, Zook said it’s possible more financial assistance could become available.

With the flames still smoldering at Royal Dane Mall early Friday morning, officials have said it may take some time to determine the cause, though mall project manager Rich Donohue said he was “the one who saw the fire go up.”

“It started inside a lawyer’s office, which affected an air conditioning unit and got debris on the go,” he said.

Describing the extent of the damage, Donohue added that it was “tremendous.”

“Three apartments, two or three stores, water damage all over,” he said. “It’s horrendous.”