Andrew Preiss and four onetime residents of the Liberty Warehouse are suing Greenfire Development for alleged negligence related to the collapse of the building's roof in May 2011.
Preiss of ARP Design Studio, Donna Sutton of Southern Portico, Inc., Deborah Pratt, Adelaide Banks of Read Seed, Inc. and James Nuss were renting studio space in the converted tobacco warehouse in May 2011 when a portion of the roof caved in during heavy rains.
Each of the plaintiffs is suing Greenfire separately.
"It's a lack of action that we're hoping to address with the suit," says Preiss, who had rented space at the Liberty Warehouse for 12 years.
The court documents read like an abstract of the long and twisting saga of the warehouse. Greenfire purchased it in 2006 for $3.5 million. In March 2011, the Durham Department of Neighborhood Improvement Services inspected the building after tenants complained about the failing roof.
Over the next two months: Condemned. Declared unsafe by city officials. Crash.
The suit comes at the end of what otherwise was an upbeat month for the company. In August, Greenfire brokered an agreement to sell the iconic SunTrust Bank tower in downtown Durham to Kentucky-based development group 21c Museum Hotels. As part of the overall deal to convert the building into a 125-room luxury hotel, the city of Durham agreed to kick in $5.7 million in tax incentives.
But the company's various other holdings continue to haunt it. The Durham City-County Planning Department declared the southern portion of Liberty Warehouse in a state of "demolition by neglect" earlier this year. The company has until Oct. 15 to complete repairs. The northern portion of the warehouse is being rented out as storage space. (Disclosure: The Indy rents a space in that portion to stores newspapers.)
Repeated calls to Greenfire officials for comment were not returned. But in a previous interview, managing partner Paul Smith told the Indy that the company is committed to finding a viable use for the 2.6-acre property, which includes the warehouse. Smith said he is speaking with various developers about the building's future.
Meanwhile, Greenfire faces the demands of Preiss and the other plaintiffs. In court documents, each now claims that company officials, in their capacity as landlord, failed to take "reasonable care" in the maintenance of the warehouse roof. All five are asking for compensation in excess of $20,000, plus punitive damages.
"I don't think their policies toward their properties have been beneficial to Durham as a whole," says Preiss. "So, as a longtime Durham resident, I think it's my duty to call them to task."